It has been a year since the release of the Raspberry Pi; the $25 computer aimed at bringing computing and, more importantly; computer programming to the masses. If you haven’t heard of the Raspberry Pi or are unfamiliar with it, be sure to stick with TechWench as we give you the low down on the cheapest fully functioning computer on the market. We will cover just what the Raspberry Pi is, what it can do and what it means for society on the wider scale.
Since February 2012 this little chip has been shaking the very foundations of the established computer market and it should have the tech giants worried. The product of good ole British boffinry it retails for a cheap and cheerful $25 and you receive a fully HD capable, 700Mhz (clockable to 1ghz) credit card sized computer. By computer, we mean computer; with a pair of USB ports and HDMI output allowing you to use these chips as full fledged home entertainment or work devices. Don’t be put off by the low processor speed, these chips run on Linux and so can pack somewhat of a processing punch due to its lower background requirements. The Raspberry Pi really is barebones computing, there isn’t even a hard drive; SD Card storage is used for booting and long term data storage but there again you have the option of plugging in your external USB hard drive.
A point of pride offered by the Pi is its impressive array of software controllable hardware output options with its Ethernet connectivity, audio output and, interestingly; 8 General Purpose I/O ports. That’s right there is now a device on the market which allows for direct control of individual components of hardware using software. There are similar systems which enable this level of functionality such as Arduino technology but these must be used in conjunction with a desktop PC and are more costly for less functionality. Where Arduino offers just the hardware/software interactivity the Raspberry Pi allows for of the inputs and outputs whilst connected to the web and feeding a USB webcam on a live feed through said web link to a tablet device. All for the pauperly sum of; $25.
So just what is the Raspberry Pi Foundation driving at? Surely for such a bells and whistles, file your taxes and able to make the coffee computer like the Pi should surely be worth a few hundred dollars at least? And it does HD video? This is the device which blends seamlessly hardware and software control in a small and capable beast the size of a credit card so why is the Raspberry Pi Foundation selling themselves short?
It’s a matter of vision in this case; the Raspberry Pi Foundation is not aiming at spinning the profits on this device, obviously this is an important consideration in any venture but the Foundation is to be commended for not having the ole profit motive as their primary concern. No, the primary concern of the foundation is the dissemination of computer science education in schools. An honourable goal with a scope as wide as the chips themselves. Following the concerns of the foundations architects that basic computer programming skills had largely been lost in the rapid development of the digital age, a group was established to develop the chip at the lowest possible price with the lowest complexity so that it was accessible by schoolchildren from a small age and accessible for the schools at a small price. The developers of the chip grew up in a time and place when the BBC Micro was widespread in schools and computer science was a much more programming oriented lesson as opposed to the Office suite oriented computing lessons delivered throughout Britain today. Anyone in IT Education take note here; kids are sick of learning how to make powerpoints by watching powerpoints, we are sick of the endless creation of various office documents to prove we can use Microsoft Word. This approach is also limiting schoolchildrens exposure to the capabilities of computing, the frustration it causes leads them to distraction and back onto playing online games and widgets.
IT Teachers; just because people had to be introduced to desktop computing when you were in school does not mean that this is the case now. The kids of today grew up in a digital world, ask them about dial-up and they’ll stare back slack eyed and boggle jawed, they do not need to be introduced step by step to the internet and the capabilities of computers.
What is needed is a focus on programming capabilities and just how computers are made to perform the front end word-processing applications, how they can program a computer to control a motored buggy and how they can connect a device to the internet themselves. The connection between computer usage and programming is so broken in this “Theres an app for that” computing paradigm in which we are living through that it has allowed software giants to take advantage of the populace by charging them exorbitant prices for buggy, bloatware ridden hardware and software packages. It allows them to take advantage of programmers as there are less outlets for their programs meaning they have to go through the software giants just to get work to live by, despite the world clamouring for cheap, accessible software as our digital appetites have been whetted by their toils from which their masters profited. Perhaps by showing the younger generation just how computers work and, critically, introducing them to a modern programming language at an early age when their minds are still plastic and capable of learning languages easily, we can reclaim the hegemony of the software giants allowing for an end to the bipolar market of Microsoft and Apple by introducing Linux enmasse.
You may think that this is not so important a development yet look at the world of computers as it stands today, think of its heroes and patriarchs. Bet your bottom dollar they had a play around on a Spectrum ZX if not worked on it. This process of propagating the means to innovate is what drives our technology forward and the Raspberry Pi seems to be the one to push us forward just that bit farther again. Consider the leaps we have made in the thirty or so years since the BBC Micro, the world is ripe for this chip not just the classroom. Turn this chip over to the nerds, I dread to think what is occurring in backrooms and sheds throughout the world as designers, innovators and tinkerers break out their established knowledge of Linux, flex their fingers and open their Pi’s up and get building. Already we have seen some interesting creations come out of the private market such as tablet controlled buggies, R2-D2’s and, out of the University of Southampton; a supercomputer. Combining the processing and graphics processing power of a whopping 64 Raspberry Pi’s (for around $2000) the University has proven that supercomputer capacity processing is attainable for about the price of a high end iMac or a fully customised gaming PC. Admittedly not the level of supercomputing processing power attainable in dedicated systems but this is a modular supercomputer similar in vein to the PS3 supercomputer comprising of multiple consoles linked. Similar system, bottom dollar price. It is also a project which can be stripped down and reapplied to another idea, one day a node in a email monitoring network, the next a surveillance droid with foam missiles!
So of the Pi’s best intentions, what has occurred so far? It has been just over a year since its initial launch and newer models with increased RAM have been released, the educational and private markets are establishing themselves with gusto as knowledge of this credit card computer spreads to technicians and enthusiasts around the world and then they learn of its welcoming price and away they go. Being entirely open source has led to a wide range of programs for the new programmer to download for free to test, tinker and toy with, the “How-to” community have rallied around the cause to teach the idea in a manner approachable to children and their teachers alike. There is talk of an app store to streamline the access to the device and to bring it to a wider market which, runs inline with the foundations views on bringing the device to school children to establish itself as a name in a new generation of programmers, roboticists and much more due to the range of applications achievable by the device. This is similar to the BBC Micro’s success which led to Acorn Computing being established as a company of note from the Pi’s developers childhood.
How has it faired in the market so far? Pre-order lists filled up, the demand is high but the manufacturing capacity may not be meeting demand. The initial run was manufactured in China as they quoted a much faster time and at a lower rate than UK manufacturers could offer but the view was always to have the Raspberry Pi be a fully-British product and so manufacturing was moved to Wales where they cannot keep up with demand, due in part, apparently, to difficulties in sourcing some key components coupled with conservative sales forecasts on the part of the distributor. So it seems the Raspberry Pi is well on its way to establishing itself in the minds of children as a valuable teaching tool and in the hands of researchers and developers as a way to truly take advantage of the Digital Age.