A world of $40 plug-sized computers… warning: geekery

NY Times poses an interesting question of the day:

What would you do with a $40 Linux computer the size of a three-prong plug adapter?

The article goes on to imagine what would happen if you had an array of little computers everywhere because they were so cheap. Some ideas: file servers, e-mail filtering/processing gateways, in your TV, DVD, your digital photo frame, etc.

This misses the point. My problem isn’t that I don’t have enough computing power. I have a couple of laptops, a little NAS file server, a couple of media players (Roku Netflix box and Soundbridge), as well as the more special-purpose things in my DVD, Wii, etc.

My problem is that I have inconsistent and incoherent input/output devices. I have more remotes than I know what to do with, plus keyboards and mice, and I have screens everywhere – TV, computer monitors, that little fluorescent screen on the Roku Soundbridge – plus audio output in various speakers in various places. And I don’t even have that complex a setup (no home theater, no DVR). Mix in the storage issue (local hard drives, cloud storage, NAS storage, optical drives) and life sucks even a bit more.

A couple of observations. First is that many of the input devices are tied to a single device – the very nice 8 (9?) Netflix player remote, or the less nice credit-card sized DVD remote with 40 or so equally sized buttons). A lot of devices have single dedicated outputs as well – goes to the TV screen, or its own monitor. Efforts to make better remotes (ones with LCD screens, for instance) are heroic multi-node integration projects in the absence of standards (or are proprietary themselves).

My fantasy is a world in which input devices,  output devices, storage and computing power are all networked, but decoupled from one another. What is a computer, anyway? it’s computing power plus input device + screen + storage. Wouldn’t it be nice to “assemble” a computer dynamically in your home. Take your TV screen + a thumbwheel remote + some computing power and storage, put them together and surf the web. Oh, I want to blog on that? Put the keyboard in the mix. Now you’re watching a youtube, but need to go to the other room? Send the video to a different display & carry the remote with you, and keep on working. The video decoding is taking place in one of those $40 computers somewhere.

From the ads, at least, it sounds like the DVR world is getting there with multiroom playback, but this misses a much larger universe. I don’t want another computer. I just want screens & input devices that tap computing power somewhere.

Plugging In $40 Computers – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com.

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