If you have been involved in amateur electronics in any way at all, or even just visited tech blogs/aggregators of late, you have probably heard of the Raspberry Pi. This amazing little device (now shipping for $35, eventually targeted to ship for $25) took the world by storm. Retailers were completely overwhelmed, and The first shipments finally went out last month.
Its popularity, of course, comes with good reason: The cost barrier for getting involved with embedded device programming has traditionally been pretty high. Getting involved with desktop development, web design, etc is pretty simple. All you need is motivation and time. Even getting involved with mobile app development is simple if you already have a smartphone. Plus, all these fields have a strong developer community so getting help and getting started is quite straightforward.
The Raspberry Pi promises to change all that. The RPi foundation decided to price the boards at a ridiculously affordable rate. A USD 25/INR 1250 board is quite within the reach of people like me: i.e. It's something I could've afforded it back when I was in high school/college in India (if only it had been around back then!). Opening up this industry to the entire world is going to be an absolute game changer. Developers the world over have already started coming up with really cool things, like a mind-controlled Lego NXT robot! I, for one, can't wait to see what else people are going to think up.
That said, at the moment I am being cautious. What will really make a difference is going to be a strong developer community. Also, hopefully a lot of schools and colleges the world over are going to get students involved with development. I think the real growth of this device is going to kick off once the current demand for devices is met and enough people get involved in the entire field to create that community.
The Raspberry Pi is not the 'first' ever to do this kind of thing. Many organizations have tried to create such cheap devices and a lot of those exist in the market today. None of them are quite as cheap as the RPi of course but they do exist and can be very useful in their specific markets.
In fact, and now we get to the actual point of this article, I personally believe that having just "one device" for the whole world isn't really going to help. I'd love to see people start off with the RPi and then move on to other alternatives that are more suited to the application at hand.
Finally, the Alternatives
Here are a few such alternatives to the Raspberry Pi. Most of these are targeted towards specific applications, which I've tried to describe. These are roughly in chronological order of when I heard of them, so the order is basically meaningless.
If you know of more, please email me (srikanthnv[at]gmail[dot]com) or leave a comment here and I'll add them to the list:
Not similar in terms of price, but very similar in terms of size. I first heard of this device way back in 2004 on slashdot, when the editors really wanted to stick these device in your collar. A tiny x86 device that could do all sorts of things that were almost unimaginable.
The Gumstix suite of devices is now huge and has all kinds of applications ranging from hobby stuff to education and infrastructure.
Seemingly the favourite of people with artistic inclinations - this device has become very famous as the best way to interface the "real world" with computers.
The Beagle Board has a powerful OMAP 3 processor, making this ideal for multimedia applications - including entertainment, vision, robotics, etc. The Beagle Board did make a huge change in getting people involved with embedded. The $150 price was still high, but a far cry from the $500+ EVMs that were traditionally available. In a way this was the original Raspberry Pi.
The BeagleBone is a pared-down variant of the Beagleboard. At $90, this is definitely more approachable for beginners.
Beagle board on steroids. Features the OMAP4 and the board of choice for HD entertainment, stereo/3d vision applications, etc.