The Promise of a $9 Computer

For those living at or near the poverty line, the expense of a computer is out of the question. But a new low-cost device could change that and more.
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For those living at or near the poverty line, the expense of a computer is out of the question. But a new low-cost device could change that and more.
(Photo: C.H.I.P.)

(Photo: C.H.I.P.)

Consider how much it costs to read this article. Forget about subscription costs; there are none. And let's take the Internet cost out too, because either you have access for the cost of a cup of coffee, or the time it takes to get a library card. But, the device you're using to read it? A newspaper or magazine costs a few or several bucks, but whatever you're using to read this—laptop, phone with a data plan, tablet—costs at least a couple hundred.

That's not an outrageous cost for those with a steady income, or without hefty bills to pay, or sans debt. But for those living at or near the poverty line—$20,090 for a family of three—it's a significant chunk of change. What if that cost was reduced to only nine dollars?

That's the thinking behind a new computer that may be a game changer for heightening technology literacy.

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The device in question is C.H.I.P., a $9 computer released by Oakland-based start-up Next Thing Co. It can do mostly basic stuff: word processing, spreadsheets, Internet, games. Those offerings were enough to build some buzz; the company launched a Kickstarter in May of 2015, received more than $2 million worth of funding (overshooting its $50,000 goal), and began shipping out the first $9 computers in January.

There are catches to that price tag. Consumers will need to obtain a keyboard, a monitor, a mouse, and perhaps a USB wall charger if they don't already have one for their phone. (PocketC.H.I.P., another offering, runs $49 and includes a built-in screen, keyboard, and mouse.) The good news is—and what makes this device special—that most of these "add-ons" are hanging around for cheap or free.

"You can bring these common tools to the party based on what you already have and have access to," says Richard Reininger, the vice president of marketing for Next Thing Co. "You can get them from us, or at a Best Buy, or a Goodwill computer store." To those suggestions, I'd add the free section on Craigslist, garage sales, and neighbors' dusty attics. (I have two keyboards sitting around, if you want to get in touch.) The group also designed the machine to work with composite video, so you can plug it directly into an old television.

It's not a stellar computer, as far as processing speed goes. "It's not going to replace your MacBook Pro," Reininger says. It can only do one-off tasks and isn't going to be lightning fast when it works. But maybe that doesn't matter much? While the device is still too new to be utilized by students or low-income families—as is standard operating procedure, the first batch is in the hands of Kickstarter funders—there's still the possibility that this, or something like it, could dramatically accelerate the spread of computer literacy.

What sets the C.H.I.P. up as a potential precipitator of an educational revolution is not just the price tag. You can buy an HDMI adapter or a VGA adapter, both of which can plug in and change the monitors available for use. The C.H.I.P. also utilizes open source. That element has made for a very active forum on the company's site, with users trading ideas with one another for how to tinker with their new toy.

While this tinkering is simplistic, it's also hands-on learning for those without tech knowledge, which points toward its true potential value.

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Jobs in the computer industry are growing more than any other STEM field: By 2024, there will be more than one million open computing jobs. And, according to a 2014 study by Google, students who had access to a computer learning course in high school were 46 percent more likely to "indicate interest" in a computer science degree. Being technologically savvy, after all, is more than just learning how to surf the Web.

Will the C.H.I.P. be effective as a teaching tool? There's a precedent. In 2011, the Raspberry Pi was released in the United Kingdom. It's similar to the C.H.I.P. The biggest differences are a slightly higher price tag (about $35) and its lack of open-source hardware. It has since sold eight million units, mostly to schools trying to get their kids hands-on learning.

"The experience at home has shifted from creation to consumption," says Philip Colligan, who, as CEO of Raspberry Pi Foundation, is trying to reverse that trend. During the first computer revolution, if you wanted to play a game on your own Tandy 1000 computer, you needed to know how to access and tinker with code. Now, all you do is turn it on and go. That's good for users, but bad for education. "Essentially, we've stopped teaching kids how to make computers," Colligan says.

The first stages of the product roll-out, like C.H.I.P., focused on hobbyists and first-adopters. But in the past few years, the Raspberry Pi has become instrumental in computer classes throughout the U.K. "Now it's used pretty extensively in education environments, library settings, maker spaces, where kids and grown-ups are learning how to hack and make things," Colligan says. Take, for example, Skycamedy: Teachers stuck the Pi in a high-altitude balloon, allowed it to rise into the lower atmosphere, and snapped photographs of the planet's curvature. Ideally, this is the future that C.H.I.P. has in American classrooms.

"Because C.H.I.P. is $9, open source, and can be used as a computer or as an important component of a project or product, the possibilities are still very broad," says Ari Turrentine, the vice president of operations at Next Thing Co. Helping bring low-income families and students into the digital age is among those possibilities. The next step is figuring out exactly how. "We are working to find partners who have expertise in education, low-resource settings, and electronic product development," Turrentine says. "We have to find those who already have the resources, proficiency, and connections to make a dent."

But once they do? Like we've seen with Raspberry Pi, the sky's the limit. The lower atmosphere, at least.

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