Where are the Cheap Computers?

OK, so most people have heard of the Raspberry Pi, the low-cost PC designed to get kids programming again.  The Model B retails at about £16 (I found it for £21.60 with delivery), so what I want to know is where are all the other cheap computers?  By cheap I mean sub £100.  The Pi Foundation is non-profit, so they can obviously undercut most businesses, but they also lack the supplier deals and manufacturing plants to get economies of scale.  Not to mention the technology they’re using isn’t new or cutting edge and is made up of components that go in most mobile phones and set-top boxes.  For five/six times the price I’d expect to see something a lot more capable.

The Pi does stand to rock a few existing markets.  People are using the Pi as a thin client, for example.  Compare that to the offerings from Wyse, one of the big names in the market.  The cheapest thin client I could find from them was around £170 (excluding VAT).  To put that into perspective, you can buy a branded PC with a top tier processor, a couple of GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive and Windows for about £80 more, or even a budget brand one with no OS for about the same money.  Why exactly they cost so much when they’re essentially just displaying a remote system I’m not sure.

Huawei recently announced they’re releasing a sub-£100 smartphone to the UK.  It’s not the first with the likes of HTC and LG already supplying similar phones.  They’re probably all capable of being thin clients and for this money they include a touchscreen, which is likely the most expensive part.

So where are the desktop computers costing that sort of money?  Looking at the nettops (the lightweight desktops) they seem to start at the same sort of money as a full desktop (£170).  Aside from size and power consumption they are inferior in most other ways.  I’ve already asked if atom-powered computers were worth it and decided they’re not.  Granted they are the cheapest option to support Windows, albeit not by much, while the Pi has an ARM-designed processor which doesn’t currently support Windows (there will be a version of Windows 8 that will run on the platform).  So maybe that’s the reason, but like the Pi, the devices could run Linux.  That would happily do the job for web surfing and email checking.  It could access a virtual desktop for Windows should it be needed (there are already companies offering this in the cloud, or it could be on a local, central server).

If you believe the hype we’re on our way to server/thin client architecture similar to the old mainframe days.  Whether that server is local or hosted in the cloud is immaterial, but it shows there will be, if there is not already, a demand for cheap client computers (of all sorts, desktop, laptop and tablet).  For IT departments this solution offers a number of benefits in terms of cost, deployment and support.

And it’s not just desktop users who obviously want cheaper machines.  This is from an article about Facebook’s infrastructure:

For example, Facebook designed minimalist custom servers that are cheaper for it to build and run than off-the-shelf ones.

With data centres on the rise and number-crunching only going to get bigger, building cheaper machines that are capable of being used for either relatively light tasks (serving web pages) or in parallel  to crunch big data seems to be something that’s in demand, rather than beefy hardware (although there’s still demand for this too).  That’s probably why the likes of Calxeda, SeaMicro and even HP (with Calxeda) are building ARM-powered servers.  Massively scalable processing power but tiny (relatively) power demands and much lower cost-per-chip.

Incidentally, the recently announced ‘rivals’ to the Pi aren’t really much of the sort, for while they have comparable (often better) hardware, they’re limited to Android as their OS instead of a fully-fledged OS, though I’m sure they’ll be hacked soon enough to offer it.

There’s not much margin in these machines, but with processing units likely to be in more and more devices the demand for low-end, low-power computing is only going to get bigger and if you can find a platform that can be used in multiple scenarios scale should more than cover it.  Plus, if the drive for virtualisation continues you may be looking at massive growth as both home and business users shift to smaller, cheaper devices.