Everyone is acquainted with the Raspberry Pi, the little Linux-based hardware fit for the classroom that grew up amongst hobbyists as an example of the near-futuristic Internet of Things. I’ve had my Pi for few months now and I’m mostly satisfied with it, using primarily as an Internet video center watching Al-Jazeera, Twitch and PBS’s Frontline.
My electronic store down the road sells many low cost boards like the Arduino and BeagleBoard. Their owners are really friendly and I had the chance to borrow the Banana Pi from them for a test drive. Now, the name is an obvious ploy to bank on the Raspberry Pi’s success and this board offers pretty much twice the power and RAM of its red fruit counterpart. And sure enough, it loaded the Lubuntu distro inside it in a flash. The distro was installed by the store owner; not provided, to my knowledge, by the board’s manufacturer or the community (if any) behind the yellow fruit moniker.
And this is where the Banana Pi looses its charm: even with all this hardware, it became clear to me that it was just another computer. Another Linux computer, to be precise, in which, depending of the distro you put in it, will have its share of trouble: Mine had missing drivers (it didn’t have Logitech Unifying Receiver drivers out-of-the-box), badly located sources (404’s galore) and a light-weight desktop in which its “video settings” menu offers little more than changing the screen resolution. As a Linux aficionado, I’m used to this kind of stuff and in any normal time on my desktop computer, I can spend days tweaking a new, freshly installed distro. But now, I wasn’t too happy because I’m comparing it to a Raspberry Pi, a device that’s had his popularity built on becoming single-app devices that do one thing and one thing great. An arcade machine, a video center, all projects that only need to be downloaded on a single SD card. Modules are part of the distributed kernels and support a wide range of peripherals but can also be tailored by each maintainer of a project. The Banana Pi community offers little of that.
When I upgrade my Raspbmc, my only concern is whether the maintainer has done a good job and if my power source is stable (those little things can be finicky). Without a specific project and community, installing a media center, even on a desktop, is quite a chore (MythTV anyone ?) and any additional update your distro provides separately is a potential compatibility, or even security, risk. My Raspbmc automatically upgraded bash recently, in the wake of the recent security scare known as Shellshock. I didn’t have to do apt-get or try to configure some security path for it. I don’t have a Raspberry Pi (the computer), I have a Raspbmc Video Center (the appliance). I still love the versatility provided by the Pi as computer to be able to load any project or program into it but I definitely made the switch in my mind to appreciate a project that transforms this whole computer as a single appliance. All that by switching SD cards dedicated to each need I might have for the day. I have other used appliances (old DVD players, LED picture frames) and I wish I could tap into them and transform their logic into something useful, but I can’t. And now, they are just junk.
In our future Internet of Things, the Next Big Thing may be a wireless LAN controlled coffee maker. But it would be nice if I could decide by myself if its LED display will show today’s news provided by some built-in exclusive content provider or if I would like to script myself a little message saying “All your base are belong to us!” instead when my morning Joe has stopped brewing, simply by changing its SD card.