My Quora answer that’s pretty popular : (1) Phil Jones’s answer to What do you think computers will be like in 10 years?

Related to my previous story of trying to use the CHIP for work.

This is a $9 CHIP (Get C.H.I.P. and C.H.I.P. Prto)

It runs Debian. A couple of weeks ago, I took one travelling with me instead of my laptop to see what it would be like to use for real work.

I successfully ran my personal “productivity” software (three Python based wiki servers and some code written in Racket) from it. It also has a browser, Emacs and I was doing logic programming with minikanren library in Python. It runs Sunvox synth and CSOUND too, though I wasn’t working on those on this trip.

In 10 years time, that computing power will be under a dollar. And if anyone can be bothered to make it in this format, the equivalent of this Debian machine will be tantamount to free.

Of course most of that spectacular power will be wasted on useless stuff. But, to re-emphasize, viable computing power that you can do real work with, will be “free”.

The pain is the UI. How would we attach real keyboards, decent screens etc when we need them?

I HOPE that people will understand this well enough that our current conception of a “personal computer” will explode into a “device swarm” of components that can be dynamically assembled into whatever configuration is convenient.

I, personally, would LIKE the main processor / storage to live somewhere that’s strongly attached to my body and hard to lose (eg. watch or lanyard). I’d like my “phone” to become a cheap disposable touch-screen for this personal server rather than the current repository of my data.

I bought a cheap bluetooth keypad for about $8. It was surprisingly OK to type on, but connections with the CHIP were unreliable. In 10 years time, that ought to be fixed.

So, in 10 years time, I personally want a computer on my wrist that’s powerful to do all my work with (that means programming and creating music). That can be hooked up to some kind of dumb external keyboard / mouse / screen interface (today the Motorola Lapdock is the gold-standard) that costs something like $20. Sure, I’ll probably want cloud resources for sharing, publishing, storage and even high-performance processing, AI and “knowledge” etc.

And, of course, I want it to run 100% free-software that puts me in control.

This is all absolutely do-able.

Why, yes. This is, indeed, OWL running on the PocketCHIP.

Here’s the story.

I spent 12 days recently, travelling in the south of Brazil and Uruguay border. And I decided, as an experiment, to see if I could live without my laptop. I wasn’t meant to be working, but I always like to keep some kind of SDI / MTC style software on me to make notes and generally think about my insanely long queue of tasks and all my other half-baked ideas. I feel lost without having access to these. And would usually take a laptop, just to keep them near to me.

This time, though, I decided to see how well I could cope with a “device swarm” of very small (and cheapish) tech.

Here’s what I took :

  • The PocketCHIP
  • My Android phone
  • A small, portable USB mouse
  • The rubber-tipped stylus.
  • A 5V mini USB charger that plugs into the wall.
  • An A5 sized paper notebook and pen.

On my trip, I also acquired a small bluetooth keyboard / mousepad that’s actually just a capacitative touch surface with letters marked on it. This impressed me a lot when I bought it at a Duty Free shopping outlet just on the Uruguay side of the Yaguarón River in Rio Branco for under $8. It charges via USB and feels pleasantly heavy and solid, while still pretty small.

Here are some things I found out.

I should note, first, that I’m also pretty much against keeping things on public clouds and other people’s servers. I increasingly want my data to be private, on systems that I control, and mainly synced between my own machines rather than using, say, my hosting provider.

Although I’m far from a satisfactory solution to that, it turned out that the discipline was useful in the sense that I wasn’t as persistently connected to the internet as I’d hoped. And so if I had depended on the cloud I would have been without access to my data more often than I had it.

I also, of course, want to use my own software. I currently have three distinct trajectories of development in this area.

  • Mind Traffic Control, racket-version.
  • The new engine behind ThoughtStorms wiki which is written in Python and uses the light-weight Bottle web-framework. I use this for both ThoughtStorms and a second personal wiki-notebook which is descended from my old SdiDesk notebook.
  • OWL

All these projects are still alive. And my notes and todos (and some more significant chunks of writing) are somewhat haphazardly scattered between them. So I wanted to see how well I could take them on the road with me with such minimal hardware.

Before leaving I updated the Debian on the PocketCHIP and installed the relevant libraries / environments. I already had MTC-racket running on it. And Emacs. Python was there too, but I needed to pip install a couple of standard libraries. Then I could install both Project ThoughtStorms and the Python-served version of OWL. (Spoiler alert : 2017  is going to be a year of consolidation between all these projects, particularly I’m aiming to unify the Python-OWL and Project ThoughtStorms servers into a single code-base.)

I didn’t try installing the Android version of OWL on my mobile, because of … er … reasons … which currently prevent me having a working dev / deployment environment for Android on my laptop. I hoped, though, that I’d be able to access the OWL server on the PocketCHIP from the phone.

Results

The PocketCHIP is a wonderful machine. (And, seriously, a Debian box for $9 just insanely amazing.) It seemed to cope just fine with simultaneously running three Python servers (2 copies of the Project ThoughtStorms wiki, and the OWL server) + MTC. (I just ran unix “screen” on the terminal and ran each in a separate screen.)

Obviously these were not being heavily accessed. (I was the only user). But I’m still impressed.

The weakness of the CHIP is its WiFi. It is very weak. My original thought was to run the servers on the CHIP and then access them from either my phone, or other computers in the places I was staying. But even where WiFi was available, the CHIP typically failed to establish a usable connection with the router.

The only time I could get anything else talking to the CHIP was by turning the phone into a hotspot and then placing that within 10 to 20 centimetres of the PocketCHIP.

This way I was able to access both wikis and OWL from the phone. I didn’t get to remotely ssh-ing into the CHIP to see MTC in a terminal from the phone, but this would have been a particular fiddle and it’s not clear that it would have been worth it. In fact, nothing worked particularly well. OWL’s web-interface is pretty much impossible to work with on a small phone screen. It’s OK on a 7″ tablet, but the phone is way smaller and too difficult to manipulate. And the HTML UI doesn’t zoom in any effective way.

Reading the wiki pages was slightly better. I was surprised, though, how badly the phone handled the fairly simple, static html. I accept that there’s very little fancy “responsiveness” in the TS wiki at the moment. I hadn’t realized how little Chrome would help. On my laptop, ctrl + and ctrl – work beautifully to scale text up and down, reflowing and refitting the text. I have no hard settings for font-size or spacing. The page ought to be easy to automatically resize to convenience.

But pinch zooming a TS page on Android Chrome is diabolical. Not only does it not scale and reflow the text in a useful way. It also seems to remember (or guess) arbitrary different zoom levels for different pages, so you jump from a readable page to another page with illegibly tiny letters to another with enormous text, most of which is off screen. And zooming the menu seems to be independent of zooming the main page text. The whole thing is horrible.

Firefox on the phone is a bit better. You can go into “accessibility” and turn up the text size to full. And then the defaults are reasonably readable and consistent on all pages.

Editing is trickier. And this is somewhat my fault, I have set a fixed number of columns in the text-box in TS wiki which is too large for a phone with either browser.

Overall, I’m disappointed with the phone experience. TS wiki is just about readable on Firefox. But it’s useless for doing any kind of work. And horrible on Chrome. OWL looks OK on both browsers, but is too fiddly to actually edit.

I need to radically rework the UI for both these projects.

So I went back to see if I could actually look at these web-served applications on the PocketCHIP itself.

It turns out that OWL works surprisingly well with the surf browser which comes pre-installed … as long as you use a mouse!

The touch screen even with a rubber-tipped stylus isn’t viable for navigating and editing an outline. But attach an external mouse to the USB and it’s surprisingly usable. The PocketCHIP keyboard isn’t great for a lot of writing, but for short items in an outline it’s viable.

TS Wiki is also fine to read. But for some reason the text-area is coming out black, with black text. (I’m pretty sure I’m not setting this explicitly, so I assume it’s a bug in surf.) You, therefore, can’t edit the wiki with it. But reading is an acceptable experience. Once again, a mouse helps, but you can just about get away with the stylus.

The bluetooth keyboard I bought paired fine with the phone. But with the PocketCHIP there were some issues with the mapping between some symbols. I couldn’t find any combination of keys to make a backslash for instance. And sometimes the shift wouldn’t work. Also the bluetooth connection kept dropping. I found myself continually swapping between the PocketCHIP’s own keyboard for typing short commands with a lot of non-alphabetic symbols, and the bluetooth keyboard to type paragraphs of text. It was just enough to get some work done, and the bluetooth keyboard was just better enough to make it worthwhile, but it wasn’t really a viable solution.

Aside

This trip I also got interested in Logic Programming and tried out the Python Minikanren library, logpy, on the PocketCHIP. Unsurprisingly, it worked as expected. But, again, that is kind of startling when you think of it.

Conclusion

Well, this stuff works. If the PocketCHIP just had better wifi / bluetooth connections, then it would be a serious possibility to do some work on. It might be that a software update fixes the power-saving that may be weakening the wifi.

But it’s not something that even I can use yet.

Some of that is in my hands, of course, one task is to tweak the TS Wiki UI to ensure that the text-area is readable in surf. That would at least mean that PocketCHIP could be used (if uncomfortably) for working on my notebooks.

It’s not all working yet … but it’s getting closer.

Posted in Me.

Got my PocketCHIP yesterday.

And here it is running Emacs, with a Racket REPL via Geiser.

pcemacs

I have to say, this has been the dream for a long time … a cheap, portable device that runs Linux, has Emacs, git, rsync etc. And I can actually write and run Lisp on it.

It has a keyboard / screen that can be used in emergencies, but can also be accessed via USB-serial and PuTTY from any old Windows PC. (Useful when you want to go somewhere which may have a PC but don’t want to take a laptop with you.)

I’ve been excited by small computers before. I do stuff with Arduinos. I have a couple of Raspberry Pis sitting around. And last year got very enthused by the possibilities of the ESP8266 running nodemcu.

But in reality, the RaspPi and ESP have both proven more awkward to work / play with than the CHIP.

The RaspPi’s problem is its dependency on HDMI. And lack of ability to log in by serial over USB. I don’t usually have an HDMI screen to hand. And not in the same room as a network router I can connect an ethernet cable to. And without one, plus special keyboard / mouse etc. And wired internet connection, it’s hard to do much with the RaspPi. I normally only use it in the local hackspace.

The ESP8266’s issue is dependency on a 3.3v power-supply. Which is awkward. Even with an FTDI cable to connect it to the computer’s USB port, you need EXTRA power of the right voltage to talk to it. I have to use a spare Arduino, just to get that 3.3v power.

It kind of pains me to say it, as I really want to champion the British innovated Pi over the American innovated CHIP, but the CHIP guys have done a magnificent job of making their board easy to use straight out of the box. The PocketCHIP is a master-stroke. I unboxed it, plugged it into a USB charger, switched it on, and was exploring and playing with the CHIP within a couple of minutes. It combines all the extra gubbins you need to do stuff with the CHIP in one, obviously cheap, but pretty usable, package. Even the keyboard is OK for small bursts of typing.

I got a PocketCHIP and two extra CHIPs. Even without the Pocket, being able to communicate with a bare CHIP via a terminal over USB makes it far more accessible than the RaspPi. Once I’d figured out a terminal program (I found cu works well) I was able to log in, set up the wifi, update and upgrade the Debian and install the software I want to play with, without any hardware beyond the USB cable.

I really hope someone comes up with a Pocket equivalent for the Raspberry Pi Zero soon. It makes a massive difference to adoptability. And I don’t really understand why the Raspberry Pi can’t be accessed over serial. It’s got USB sockets. Why can’t we do serial over them?

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Posted in Me.