Marvell Technology Group is counting on an army of computer engineers and hackers to answer that question. It has created a “plug computer.” It’s a tiny plastic box that you plug into an electric outlet. There’s no display. But there is an Ethernet jack to connect to a home network and a U.S.B. socket for attaching a hard drive, camera or other device. Inside is a 1.2 gigahertz Marvell chip, called an application processor, running a version of the Linux operating system.All this can be yours for $99 today and probably for under $40 in two years.
“There’s not much in there,” said Sehat Sutardja, Marvell’s chief executive and co-founder, just a few chips and the sort of power supply used to charge a cellphone battery. Because this computer uses chips designed for cellphones, it uses far less power than chips designed for regular computers. Mr. Sutardja envisions an explosion of innovation about to hit home users because of the combination of open-source software and very powerful chips that are becoming available at very low costs.The first plausible use for the plug computer is to attach one of these gizmos to a U.S.B. hard drive. Voila, you’ve got a network server. CloudEngines, a start-up, has in fact built a $99 plug computer called Pogoplug, that will let you share the files on your hard drive, not only in your home but also anywhere on the Internet.
“This creates a smart data center for the home,” Mr. Sutardja said.
Another application might be to connect a security camera to the Internet, adding enough intelligence to help analyze images to distinguish between a stray dog and a cat burglar.
Ultimately, these computers may well be used in more mainstream devices, especially for home entertainment.“We wanted to seed the thinking of people in the market place with what you can do with our processors,” Mr. Sutardja said. “Eventually you won’t see the plug. We want this device to be in your TV, your stereo system, your DVD player.”
The plug computer idea is clearly a step in that direction. And it is part of an even broader array of chips designed initially for phones that will add features to many other devices.Mr. Sutardja talked about the sort of digital photo frame you can now buy for about $50. Add $2 in chips, and it can display high-definition movies, he said. Another $2 adds a camera. And less than a dollar adds several microphones.
“You now have the sort of video conferencing that corporations buy for much more money,” he said.“The uses of an application processor are endless,” he said. “It is up to smart people to imagine what it can do.”