Perhaps one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of technology and science is the development of the personal computer, its increase in power and decrease in price. In 1989, when Eben Upton bought his first computer for £220 (that's about $330 U.S.), he had to empty his piggy bank, round up everything he had and still could barely do it. His second computer, a Commodore Amiga, cost even more. But even with the incredible drop in prices since then, cost was still a barrier to entry for kids who wanted to learn about computing. That’s why he developed the Raspberry Pi, the $25 computer released in 2012. He expected at the time to sell a few thousand of them for educational purposes; in fact it became a phenomenon around the world, with more than 5 million sold.

But that wasn’t good enough, according to Eben:

Of all the things we do at Raspberry Pi, driving down the cost of computer hardware remains one of the most important. Even in the developed world, a programmable computer is a luxury item for a lot of people, and every extra dollar that we ask someone to spend decreases the chance that they’ll choose to get involved.

According to the Wall Street Journal, that was not the original plan; they were going to build a slightly more expensive, more powerful computer. Then Eben met Eric Schmidt of Google, who suggested that they go in the other direction.

“He said it was very hard to compete with cheap. He made a very compelling case. It was a life-changing conversation,” Mr. Upton said, adding that he went back to the lab and scrapped all the engineering plans for more expensive versions of future Pi computers. “The idea was to make a more powerful thing at the same price, and then make a cheaper thing with the same power.”

So now they have brought out the new Pi Zero, which costs less than a slice of raspberry pie, or for that matter, a latte at the local coffee shop. It’s not a toy either; it’s processor is 40 percent faster than my own original Raspberry Pi. (See more of the specs on TreeHugger here) In fact, I compared it to my first computer, a Commodore 64:

Pi Zero vs Commodore 64It's a Pi Zero vs. Commodore 64 smackdown (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

This is what's so extraordinary: In the 30 years since the first true home computer was put on the market to the recent launch of the Pi Zero, the power has increased astronomically and the price has essentially dropped to zero, so that any kid, anywhere, can afford a machine powerful enough to learn how to code, and which can be used for hundreds of different purposes that couldn’t have been imagined back in the C64 days. But this could be as low as it goes. Upton notes:

We really don’t think we’ll get any cheaper than this. We’ve gone from say, four lattes, to one latte. We’re not going to go below the cost of one latte.

I tried to find out the cost of a latte in 1984 to figure out the cost of my C64 in coffee but alas, it doesn’t appear that anyone sold them at the time. But I do have something special instead: Here's an interview I did with Upton in 2013.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

New Raspberry Pi Zero costs less than a latte
What an extraordinary story, the increase in power and decrease in price of the personal computer.