Rise Of The (Small) Machines
By Girish Mhatre/The Next Machine
The open source culture may be on the brink of a triumph greater than Linux.
Budding engineers, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers in the know are flocking in droves to a new breed of electronic devices that does not yet have a generic name, but is rooted in the open-source ethos.
The devices are computers, but “open” in every sense of the word; Literally, in that they are “bare bones” credit-card sized circuit boards (no display, no power source) that sell for less than $50 apiece, but they are also “open” in that details of their hardware design are freely available, as is the software that runs them. They can be used to control real “things” such as switches, LEDs, sensors, serial-ported devices, etc. (Expansion boards – called Shields by the industry leader Arduino -- http://www.arduino.cc/ -- can provide many other functions such as motor control, GPS, Ethernet, LCD display or simply bread-boarding of experimental circuit functions. ) Running in standalone mode, they can be built into other products--- imbuing those with a degree of smartness-- or be controlled by smart phones or computers.
Currently, there are less than half a dozen choices. They differ in terms of on-board features and in their choice of their main component, the microcontroller chip: Arduino uses microcontrollers made by Atmel; Netduino (http://netduino.com/) uses the STMicroelectronics family, while the latest to announce, BeagleBoard (http://beagleboard.org/), is built around chips made by Texas Instruments.
Each of these has quickly spawned a vibrant community of boosters, advice givers and troubleshooters and a fast growing “eco-system” of add-on enhancements from third parties.