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August 15, 2007

Will the Bug breed?

Jeremy Toeman holding a Bug I went to the Bug+BLANK gathering tonight, and learned a bit more about what Bug Labs is gestating.  A Bug is a small, diskless, fanless, single board computer with Linux preloaded onto it, and a standardized peripheral interface.  It comes with some standardized I/O built into it, USB, Ethernet, WiFi, Serial, and Bluetooth.  Rather than Lego Mindstorms for the masses, it reminds me of the old Altair 8800 built around the S100 bus.  Where back in the day you had to get down to the bit level to make an Altair and its peripherals work, Bug Labs brings back the open-ness and creativity of that era, but raises the abstraction level to Java as its first shipping software interface, and Linux as the OS. Please correct me in the comments if I am wrong. 

The peripherals you can attach to a Bug connect via the four ports on the Bug module, they hope to develop an ecosystem of peripherals that other people design and publish APIs for, so you can develop new gadgets.  Currently, you'd have to take a PC and find PCI based boards that perform the functions that you want.  In the picture, Jeremy is holding a Bug with a video camera and motion detector modules plugged in.  In theory, you could develop your own peripheral that does something, most likely a gateway module to another hardware interface, such as line level audio in or out, HDMI video, or perhaps some custom instrumentation to measure temperature, pressure, or whatever your heart desires.

Even though Bug Labs is touting this as Open Source Hardware, it doesn't seem any more open than any of the system buses that have been around forever.  A Bug is like a motherboard, it may have a standard bus attached, but it is a one of a kind animal. Bug Labs looks like it will make its money by selling Bugs and a set of core peripherals at the beginning.  The peripheral interface is the key here, as that's what is proprietary about it. If  Bugs start to breed, it will be interesting to see what happens when Bug clones come along.  If they do, this will have been a good thing for Bug Labs, in that they will have created a popular platform.

It's a quantum leap forward in the ability to build hardware things in a smaller form factor than the PC, certainly at a higher level of abstraction, and less cumbersome.  If they debut with a set of useful peripherals and some easy examples of how to put a useful gadget together, I am optimistic that they will succeed in creating a new generation of networked computers, where it will be feasible to construct a device like an Apple TV, or an IP based set-top box, taking innovation to a new level.

I'm sure I have oversimplified some and left out many of the concepts  of the Bug and Bug Labs, but it was a short time to get to know this exciting new device and company.  I hope to get my hands on some  product in the fall and see whether this is the real deal or not.

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