The Raspberry Pi is a quintessentially British invention. It was originally created because the University of Cambridge Computing Department felt that new students hadn’t a high enough level of programming experience when they began their studies. So a cheap, accessible machine was designed, using off-the-shelf components and plugging into available devices such as USB keyboards, SD cards and TVs. Like the webcam, another Computing Department invention (it was trained on the filter coffee machine at the other end of the building to avoid wasted journeys if the jug was empty), it combines technology with quirkiness and the British love of tinkering.
From these humble beginnings over 3 million have now been sold. To put this in context it is double the number of sales of the BBC Micro, the original government-backed home computer of the 1980s, and not far off the 5 million Sinclair ZX Spectrum machines that spawned a generation of programmers back then. It has even been shown to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, with founder Eben Upton ticked off by the Duke of Edinburgh for not wearing a tie.
However, the impact of the Pi has gone far beyond sales figures. It has created an ecosystem that spans everything from desktop arcade machines to funky cases. It is also being used within a whole range of other projects, from weather balloons to creating a pirate radio station. You can even run Spectrum games on it, linking back to the 1980s. And all of this from a non-profit company, that is now manufacturing in the UK.
And I’d argue that it has actually had a major hand in putting programming back at the heart of UK education. From September all primary school pupils will be taught programming, as opposed to how to use word processing applications. This will introduce a whole new generation to writing their own programs.
Even if just 5% go on to forge a career in technology, it will deliver a vast new workforce to the sector in the UK – as well as giving the other 95% some basic skills that will help them thrive in a world run by software. The availability of the Pi means it will be central to delivering these lessons, and the community has already created a huge volume of materials for teachers.
Once lessons start I’d expect many more parents to invest in a Pi (either driven by pester power or because they want to help their children succeed) – and at 20 quid for the most basic version it is within the majority of families’ budgets, at less than the price of a new PlayStation or Xbox game.
So I’d argue that the Pi’s rise to prominence hasn’t even really started yet. The combination of its community support, simplicity and the growth of programming means it will go from strength to strength. If you’ll excuse the pun, the Pi really is the limit…………..
This week BBC director general Tony Hall launched a slew of initiatives designed to reposition the beleaguered broadcaster. The aim is to show that the BBC is central to meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future, and to draw a line under an annus horribilis for the corporation, which has been plagued by scandals from Jimmy Savile to excessive payoffs for senior managers.
Amongst the news of a BBC One + 1 channel (by my maths that’s BBC Two), and expansion of iPlayer, one thing that caught my eye was a pledge to “bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK”. As someone who grew up in the 1980s it made me misty-eyed with nostalgia for the last time the BBC got involved in technology, with the original BBC Micro. Essentially the BBC put up the money for the machine to be given to every school in the UK, as well as producing TV programmes and courses on coding.
While I never had a BBC (I was a Sinclair Spectrum diehard), we used them in at school and it did help me learn to code. It really was a golden age for UK computing, as it introduced a generation to computers they could play games on, but equally program and learn with. Programming your own creations was a viable alternative to just treating these machines as games consoles – particularly as a Spectrum game took about 10 minutes to load (and often mysteriously crashed just before it should have started). I was incredibly proud of my amazing horse racing game (complete with betting and flickering graphics), even if my programming days are now long behind me.
Not only did the BBC/Spectrum age produce a generation that wasn’t afraid of coding, but it also helped shape the UK IT industry. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, spawned ARM, now a world leader in chip design, while countless games companies developed from bedrooms into multi-million pound concerns. You could easily argue that Cambridge wouldn’t be the technology powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the BBC.
But then IT became marginalised as a school subject – essentially replaced with learning to use desktop applications rather than program. In a global economy where companies compete on knowledge, the need to rekindle that interest in coding has never been greater. The BBC is not the first to understand this – the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi has become a global phenomenon as it brings back the spirit of adventure and exploration to children weaned on iPads and Wiis. There’s also a new computer science curriculum for schools and coding courses are becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
So where does the BBC fit into this? There’s a lot of hyperbole in the announcement about “using world class TV, radio and online services to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity”, but very little detail. The challenge for the BBC is to pitch whatever it offers in a way that doesn’t replicate what is being done in the private sector and doesn’t dumb down coding to a simple point and click level. As seen in the 1980s, the backing of the BBC can be a major force for good, but it could equally stifle the innovation and creativity that it is trying to encourage. The jury’s out, but I hope it can turn the undoubted niche success of the coding revival into a mainstream movement – working with the industry to create the Acorns and ARMs of tomorrow.
As anyone who’s tried to walk down King’s Parade knows, Cambridge is a magnet for tourists. However while visitors have plenty to look at, most of it is pretty old. From the colleges and Senate House to Fitzwilliam Museum the impression is of wonderful past achievements, rather than demonstrating the innovation and new breakthroughs that are happening now in the city.
Cambridge is leading the world in scientific research and is one of the centres of the UK IT industry, but up until recently the casual tourist would have been hard pushed to see any of this. And, let’s face it, simply seeing imposing medieval architecture and porters in bowler hats is going to put off a lot of young people from applying to study here.
The good news is that this is changing. In February, the Cambridge Science Centre opened its doors, inspiring the general public by enabling children (and their parents) to try hands on science experiments. Having had to physically drag my children away from it on our first visit it definitely delivers an engaging alternative to King’s College Chapel.
This week the Science Centre will be joined by The Centre for Computing History, which opens its permanent base in the city. The culmination of a two and a half year campaign, the Centre will give hands-on access to a huge collection of machines from the last 40 years, including a 1980s classroom with working BBC Micros to bring back memories for those of us of a certain age.
So far, so good. But having just visited the enormous @Bristol Science Centre and seen what has been achieved there as part of the city’s regeneration, there’s plenty more that Cambridge needs to do. The Cambridge Science Centre is essentially operating as a showcase in small (but well-utilised) premises while fund raising and the search for a larger location continues. And the Computing Centre needs volunteers to staff the building as it seeks to establish itself.
There’s been an enormous amount of support for both centres from local companies such as ARM and Red Gate and entrepreneurs including Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely. But now, during the summer holidays is the time for visitors and locals alike to stray from the tourist trail and try something different. You won’t regret it – and you may well help to inspire the next generation of scientists and programmers to continue the Cambridge success story.
I grew up with a ZX Spectrum, and while my programming efforts may never have been up to much (a flickering horse racing game where you could bet and a pretty much mythical hotel booking system for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award project) it got me interested in IT, and probably has a lot to do with my becoming a technology PR person. More successful programmers went on to essentially create the billion pound UK games industry and provide a generation of tech-savvy workers for the sector.
Now I’ve got kids of my own I can see the same curiosity about technology but the opportunities for casual programming seem so much more limited. They happily use computers but don’t necessarily know how they work or even that you can program them and make them do what you want.
So I’ve been following with interest the progress of Raspberry Pi, the Cambridge-based project that aims to create a cheap ($25/£15) stripped down computer that is affordable for all and aims to develop a new generation of programmers. Based around an ARM processor and Linux, what I like most about it is the deliberate focus on keeping it simple. The idea is to create an ecosystem of partners around the computer itself, adding additional hardware or software to fit specific needs. Add together the cheapness of the computer and its openness and the potential uses are pretty much endless – from education to embedded projects. In a stroke of marketing genius the first 10 beta boards are being auctioned on eBay, to raise funds for the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation – and they are selling for thousands of pounds.
Both OFSTED and the likes of Eric Schmidt of Google have complained recently about how ICT and programming is taught in UK schools. The advent of Raspberry Pi provides the start point to address these issues – providing the tools to interest and teach a whole new generation of kids. Obviously making it central to the ICT curriculum will take work (and a case), but given the government’s oft-repeated desire to provide young people with the skills a 21st century economy needs, it’s time for David Cameron to put some investment into putting them into every school before we fall further behind.
- Resurrection of the BBC Micro (rasremmos.wordpress.com)
- $25 Raspberry Pi Computer Prototypes Selling for $3,000 (blogs.wsj.com)
- Raspberry Pi Credit Card Sized Computer Will Handle 1080p Video for $25, Due Out Next Month (inquisitr.com)
- Raspberry Pi, a Tiny But Powerful $25 PC, Coming Soon [VIDEO] (mashable.com)