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The Next Old Thing

Illustration Spur Design

Corbis (Edison)

Corbis (Edison)

The Technology: Microcomputing
The Product: The Edison
The Forebear: Thomas Edison

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others,” said Thomas Edison. Given this staunch devotion to utility, it’s odd that Edison should be the namesake for Intel’s new microcomputer.

The Edison is about the size of a digital camera storage card, and it has a ton of CPU horsepower (about as much as a 1998 desktop computer), and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi built in. Plus it runs Linux. So now the question is: What do you do with it?

Intel doesn’t seem to know.

To get things rolling, the company has demonstrated a souped-up baby monitor, or “smart nursery ecosystem,” which, among other things, can detect when a baby is awake and start warming its bottle for you. Otherwise, it’s obvious Intel is waiting for the rest of us to figure this thing out (which, to be fair, is how the big chipmakers have always worked).

Of course, there’s no shortage of “Internet of Things” concepts floating around, where people have taken stuff like thermostats and fire alarms and made them connected and programmable. You can buy Wi-Fi lightbulbs these days.

The Edison could be used for applications like that, but it’s almost too powerful. You could use it to make a doll talk, but you could also use it to make a doll with an animated screen for a face that responds to sounds and can update your calendar. So far, Intel hasn’t revealed how much these things will cost—but you can be pretty sure the price won’t be as small as the computer.

It seems likely that the Edison will start its life in places where real computing power is worth a few extra dollars, such as in consumer health devices. Imagine a pulse monitor that produces a mix of your favorite music, changing the tempo to influence your workout, while also ensuring you don’t drop dead from fatigue.

Thomas Edison got the connectivity ball rolling when he worked to wire our houses with electricity. Today, his namesake computer promises to take his efforts to their logical conclusion.

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