Tech is coming full circle – and that’s a good thing

Fashion is cyclical – and so is technology.

Humboldt Solutions’ roots go back more than twenty years, to a time before widespread broadband, solid-state hard drives and almost unlimited memory. As experts in low-powered computing, we specialised in building compact devices with conservative specs that would run and run, sometimes without intervention, for years.

We are still doing that, and with the world finally catching up, we are able to apply our two decades of expertise to a whole new generation of smaller, friendlier, more efficient products.

Miniaturisation for the masses

You might recognise a Raspberry Pi, but you may not notice how much it has changed since its initial incarnation.

When it first appeared, it was lacking a number of fundamentals. Most obviously, it didn’t have any mounting holes to screw it into a case. The developers probably didn’t think there was any need, but with hindsight we can see that they got it wrong.

Customers, who were increasingly using the Pi as the basis of larger, more ambitious projects, started to improvise clamps that would fix it into a shell. The Raspberry Pi Foundation spotted what was happening and responded by incorporating mounting holes in the second and subsequent editions. It also moved from full-size SD cards, which protruded from the motherboard and could be shaken out, to micro SD cards, which are locked in place.

So, as they worked on evolving the board, they also made it easier to build it into something else, and went on to produce models like the Pi Compute and Pi Zero, which are designed specifically to be used as the starting point of a larger integrated device.

The Foundation has achieved an awful lot in a very short time, but to my mind, one of its most admirable accomplishments is bringing a new level of acceptance to the idea of low-powered computing. Mainstream interest in the ability to produce single-task computers using miniature motherboards like the Raspberry Pi is an exciting advance, which should result in lower costs and less obsolescence across the industry. Ultimately that will have an environmental pay-back, too.

Ultra-small, ultra-inexpensive devices

We use the Raspberry Pi platform for building prototypes, and in a recent example, attached one to a client’s network so it could remotely monitor and send back diagnostic reports for in-depth analysis. The Pi, including its case and power source, is so small that it could continue working unobtrusively for as long as necessary without ever getting in the client’s way or interrupting their ongoing work.

Yet the Raspberry Pi is a full Linux-based system, and in some cases even this might be overkill – particularly when you can get even smaller modules, with built in Wi-Fi, a handful of interfaces and the ability to load your own software, for less than £5.

Called Arduino in the UK and US, and Genuino elsewhere, these logic boards support just a few kilobytes of usable memory, and as such they hark back to the earliest days of home computing. The key difference, though, is their dimensions. At around half the size of a Raspberry Pi and capable of running off a button battery for several months, they are many times smaller than a computer of equivalent power from the days of Humboldt’s founding, which makes them an even better starting point for a bespoke, single-use project.

History repeating

Having seen embedded technology go through a period of growth (and, some might say, bloat), components like the Arduino seem to be completing the circle.

This renewed focus on low power computing is particularly exciting, as for years the rule has been that the smaller a device is, the more it costs. That is because manufacturers have been focused on shrinking down the whole package in each instance, rather than just a subset of its features.

By looking to strip away unnecessary specs while shrinking the host components, the companies producing these simple starting points are enabling a far wider range of projects than ever before. They are also accelerating the development process by saving us, and others, starting from scratch each time.
Our experience of working within the constraints of these diminutive devices, while maximising the possibilities of their conservative features, is allowing us to satisfy our clients’ demands more quickly and at more competitive prices than ever before. That’s why they, not us, are the real beneficiaries of the low powered computer revolution.

Are you struggling to adapt bloated, off-the-shelf hardware to perform relatively simple jobs? Find out how you can do it more cheaply while being kinder to the environment by switching to a low-powered alternative. Call Humboldt Solutions today on 01276 415787 or email info@humboldt.co.uk

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