Smartphones and tablets have thus far dominated the discussion on the topic of post-PC devices. These devices are expensive, mobility focused and mainly facilitates users with consuming information. But I would like to consider another set of devices which are inexpensive to own and operate, stationary and distributes information.
There are already examples of such devices, though they are not inexpensive. TiVo and Slingbox are two of the well known examples. Both of them served video content using proprietary hardware. They were expensive to develop from R&D point of view as well as marketing them. Since they defined new product categories with high consumer cost, it took a long time for them to get market traction. It turned out TiVo was more successful than Slingbox and the service concept got adopted in other boxes. In other words, introducing single function boxes are expensive and risky. The story is repeated in media streaming boxes and Pogoplug is trying its hand with NAS. Though it may not appear so at first blush, there are other examples: Home Monitoring, cordless base stations, WiFi routers, Print servers and VoIP ATA/Clients.
All these examples have somethings in common. All are essentially software applications that require an always on hardware that is inexpensive, low in power consumption and operationally silent. If such a hardware platform is available that too from multiple vendors, then the same sort of “App Store phenomenon” can happen in this segment as well. I am here to report that such a platform is here and available now.
For about two years, I have been following the developments related to “plug computers” put forwarded by Marvell. They have put out a reference design built on an ARM processor. There have been reports that Marvell expects that plugs will retail for as low as $49. Pogoplug is built around this design and Chumby is also a simliar device. But they are all one of a kind. They are closed both in hardware and software. Yes, Chumby allows third party to build Flash-based applications, but that is all. Plug computers are not widely available. Marvell identifies a couple of third party OEMs who can build products based on their reference design. But there are no generally available products targeted at the consumer market. But last month I came across a device called Efika MX Smarttop, marketed by Genesi.
The platform is very similar to plug computers. It is a compact device measuring 160x115x20mm. It is built around Freescale i.MX515 (ARM Cortex-A8 800MHz), with 512 MB RAM, 8 GB SSD. It has 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n WiFI, a SDHC card reader and 2 USB 2.0 ports. A display unit can be connected via a HDMI port. It comes with a derivative of Ubuntu 10.10. In other words, for all purpose, it is a PC with a full fledged OS. The unit consumes about 5W to fully operate. The device currently retails for $129 from their website. But I suspect that there is room for the price to be much lower once the volume picks up.
Another noteworthy thing is that Ubuntu 10.10 has something called Ubuntu Software Center. It is like Apple App Store or Android Marketplace. It is easy to discover and install software. No need to fudge with sudos and apt-gets.
So what can one do with Efika. The Software Center has MySQL available. Even though Apache is not listed, there is no reason why one can not be made available. This means, users can run their web sites on Efika. With open source software, attaching a USB drive one can make Efika into a NAS. I am able to install and run Twinkle, a VoIP client. So with ah appropriate USB device with an FXS, one can make it into an ATA. I am sure one can make it a DECT base station or a WiFi router. But they require additional hardware. So the next generation of Efika must have something like “expansion slot” from the PC era. With this specific hardware or processing power can be augmented to support specific application. For example, for DECT base station, the additional hardware will perform the required radio function and also provide FXO port. To make it a wifi router, it will be required to have LAN ports. I envision that such application specific hardware will be made available by the corresponding app developer.
All in all it is like PC market all over with one big difference: the OS is free and open source. There is no one entity that is in control, save for ARM. I really hope this particular segment of consumer electronics sees lots of action.