The Changing Face of DIY Computers

The PC industry was birthed a generation ago from a group of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) enthusiasts. The group called themselves the “Homebrew Computer Club” and among its members were IT icons such as Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs. These enthusiasts went on to found industry giants like Apple and Microsoft. A few months ago, I was trumpeting that the PC was not dead, and indeed it isn’t. What is dying, however, is the long held DIY ethic that was ever so popular during the early days of the PC. For the most part, PC’s since the founding of the industry have reflected the original conceptions of the DIY ethic with modular design that made customization and upgradability easy.

But now the market is moving away from this, and perhaps the biggest killer of the DIY ethic is the “system-on-a-chip” (SOC) phenomenon in computer hardware. An SOC computer integrates all or most every component necessary to have a fully functional computer. These components include the Central Processing Unit (CPU), Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), Memory Controller, hardware interface controllers, and in many cases, the RAM modules as well. If there are external modules, such as cell modems, WIFI controllers and non-volatile storage, usually these are integrated together with the SOC chip on single circuit board.

To make matters worse, tighter coupling between hardware and operating systems is making DIY computers more difficult too. In the past, one could buy all the components for a computer, select an operating system, build the system, and install the operating system of choice to create a fully customized computer. Nowadays, when one buys a computer, what seems to be the case is the hardware manufacturers are prescribing the operating system that goes with their hardware and making it difficult to use anything but that operating system on the device. The manufacturers of Android devices usually lock the user out of “root” access to the device to prevent modification to the operating system or the installation of something other than the stock operating system. For Apple, there is only one game in town on iPhones, iPads, and iPods – iOS. Apple also tightly controls what software can and cannot be installed on the device through the App Store. From the looks of it, Microsoft wants in on this paradigm to by locking out other operating systems on their future Windows 8 devices in the devices firmware through a “signing” measure. This tight coupling between devices and their respective operating systems means there what more or less has to use what one gets, such that one is locked into the device he or she bought that the manufacturer built.

While system-on-a-chip and tight coupling between devices and operating systems are diminishing the options for DIYers, the desktop operating system market is morphing into a mobile-desktop mashup, as if the entire market is headed the direction of the mobile market. Windows 8 is somewhere between the traditional Windows OS’s of the past and Microsoft’s mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7. Metro is reminiscent of the home screen on Windows Phone devices. Even more so, one of the most anticipated features of Windows 8 is the ability to run on ARM processors, potentially creating Microsoft tablet market to compete with Android and Apple. In the Apple camp, iOS started as a mobile operating system, but has found its way on to iPads. OS X is taking on features inspired by iOS. The recent nod by Ubuntu’s maker, Canonical to Android and their push to put Ubuntu on tablets shows that even desktop Linux is moving this direction too.

The business motivation for modular design and software agnosticism appears to be gone. Manufacturers have been making system-on-a-chip devices and tightly coupling devices with operating systems for a number of reasons: efficiency, costs, size, and weight which translates into low-cost, portable computing platforms we have come to love such as smartphones, tablets, and ultra-portable laptops, all-in-one desktop computers, and even TV’s and “set-top” devices. But these advantages come at a cost – there is no or very little room for expansion, upgradability, or customization beyond the original equipment that came out of the box. One cannot swap the stock CPU for a faster CPU with more cores or cache. One cannot upgrade the memory. One cannot increase the storage, add a larger display, or install a gaming video card. From a debugging point of view, one cannot replace bad modules with good ones. Granted, a few components can be changed on mobile devices, but the parts are proprietary and the components are not upgrades, rather just replacement parts. Modular computers seem to be going the way of the VHS tape.

Likewise, the new cash cow for manufacturers isn’t necessarily in the sales of hardware and operating systems, rather the sales of media and apps for these devices. In recent years, there have been a number of integrated stores to buy music and apps for devices that come out of the box on the device. Users used to have to either download or buy apps for a third party and install them on the device, but now these purchases are generally made through the device’s principal vendor. The Kindle (an Android device) integrates Amazon. Apple devices integrate their App Store. Many carriers have attempted to integrate their own app stores with varying success. Google has the general Android Marketplace for most all Android devices. Even Microsoft launched a store that is displayed prominently in its new operating system. The money makers do not seem to be in software platforms anymore insomuch as it is apps and media for the platforms.

Raspbery Pi
Raspbery Pi

While the traditional manner of doing DIY is dying, the enthusiasts are getting more creative with their approaches. A number of initiatives have taken one approach by to making a number of DIY devices, but the DIY is not so much in the device as it is in the software on the device. One such instance is a DIY device is the forthcoming Raspberry Pi. This little computer can fit in an Altoids can and is powerful enough to play high definition movies. A more capable device called “Trim Slice” supports dual displays and hosts a SATA controller for larger storage capacities. Both Raspberry Pi and Trim Slice are based on ARM technology and use some version of Linux as the operating system. The device is completely open, so it could be purposed for all sorts of applications. There is likely to be some creative implementation for such devices. Another such device is being put out by Liquidware – a fully open, customizable Android tablet called Amber. Liquidware caters to hardware hacker and enterprise installations wanting to make customized tablets for specific purposes.

The second approach is taking existing devices and expanding or outright replacing the OEM software installed on the devices. iOS is constantly “jail broken” to allow third-party applications to be installed on iOS devices that would not otherwise be accepted in the Apple App Store. Android devices are constantly “rooted” to allow similar capabilities as “jail breaking” on iOS devices. Bolder attempts make completely customized firmware for Android devices. There is even a fledgling effort to port Android to devices that run iOS called iDroid.

The modular desktops is going to go away tomorrow, and will likely exist for some time so long as there is a demand for computer components from gamers and hacks such as myself who want to buy and build custom rigs for a given slated purpose. Nevertheless, the DIY ethic is morphing, looking for new avenues as the market changes. As a DIYer myself, I am hoping to get my hands on some of these newer DIY devices in the not so distant future to play with. In any case, it should be fun to see what can (and cannot for that matter) be done with such things.

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