Last May, a largely unknown niche camera company created an uproar when it announced it had built a $9 computer. But as the Kickstarter pledges rolled in — more than $2 million from almost 40,000 backers — it seemed Next Thing Co., co-founded by Dave Rauchwerk, Thomas Deckert, and Gustavo Huber, had made an important contribution, fundamentally altering the cost structure of small computing devices. Other low-cost Linux boards existed before C.H.I.P., but none were less than $10.
As surprising as C.H.I.P. was, it didn’t just appear from nowhere. It wasn’t even what Next Thing Co. set out to make. It was the offshoot of another product, OTTO, a hackable animated GIF camera based on the Raspberry Pi compute module. TechCrunch proclaimed OTTO as a sure sign “we’ve reached peak hipster,” a headline the team owns with pride. Though the company successfully built and shipped OTTO, it failed to live beyond crowdfunding, not because of snarky headlines, but because it was too expensive to produce beyond fulfilling rewards.
As a result, the team at Next Thing Co. decided to address the high cost of computing. They wanted to build the board that would enable products like OTTO to succeed. “If C.H.I.P. existed when we built OTTO, we would still be a camera company,” says Rauchwerk.
Powering C.H.I.P. is a 1Ghz ARMv7 processor from Allwinner with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage. That’s enough room to comfortably run a customized operating system based on Debian Linux and still have space for applications and source code. Onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth low energy, plus the ability to power C.H.I.P. with a LiPo battery, differentiate C.H.I.P. from other low cost platforms such as the Raspberry Pi Zero, which lacks built-in connectivity hardware.
While C.H.I.P. was purpose-built to power hardware creations — the name stands for Computer Hardware Inside Products — the $9 computer is more than just a device for Makers and product designers. C.H.I.P. is a cheap computer: Simply add a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and you can do computer things — programming, gaming, or surfing the web.
This gives C.H.I.P. a bit of a split identity; not only is it an inexpensive computer, it can be easily integrated with other hardware such as sensors and motors. This is thanks to 80 exposed pins on two rows of 40-pin female headers, including 8 general purpose input and output pins along with many others for specific functions.
Since C.H.I.P. became available, users have created a custom software developer kit and forked a C.H.I.P.-specific version of Linux. The Creative Commons-licensed device combines open source software and hardware, allowing designers to build derivative products and customize it to their needs, and making it particularly attractive to those looking to create a product and take it to market.