Can the Raspberry Pi save computing?
Thirty years ago, Cambridge was the epicentre of a computing revolution.
By releasing affordable computers into British homes and schools, companies such as Acorn Computers and Sinclair Research inspired a whole generation to embrace computing, helping the UK become one of the leading nations in software development, digital entertainment and technological innovation.
From the Acorn Atom to the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro to the Oric Atmos and Jupiter Ace, these machines and the companies that created them helped to pave the way for the PCs, tablets and consoles we enjoy using today.
Only now the picture isn’t so rosy. Technology, software and games development remain huge industries in the UK, but our companies are recruiting from a shrinking pool of homegrown talent.
Find out more
Hands on with the Raspberry Pi
Between 2003 and 2010, applications for computer science degrees dropped from 16,500 to 13,600, at a time when overall university applications were rising.
For the younger generation, there’s a growing disconnection between the consumption of IT and the work that goes into making it. Last August, Google’s Eric Schmidt accused the UK of “throwing away [its] great computer heritage” by failing to teach computer science in schools: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”
Yet history might just be repeating itself. In Cambridge, a charitable foundation of academics, businessmen, engineers and developers – which includes some familiar names – is trying to recapture the spirit that put UK computing on the map.
Their secret weapon? A $25 (£15) computer running open source software that will work with any HDMI-enabled TV, which – like the charitable foundation behind it – goes by the name of Raspberry Pi.
The computing brain-drain
One of the six trustees behind the Raspberry Pi foundation is David Braben, head of UK games studio Frontier Developments and co-author of the seminal 1984 space-exploration game, Elite. The idea of Raspberry Pi was born after he observed a lack of new programming talent entering the industry.
“Even before Raspberry Pi was conceived, many of us had noticed that the number of graduates coming through with computer science skills had dropped off dramatically,” he explains. “You’d think they’d be continuously increasing, but there was a precipitous drop-off”.
Even before Raspberry Pi was conceived, many of us had noticed that the number of graduates coming through with computer science skills had dropped off dramatically
Talking to friends, colleagues and various university advisory boards, Braben discovered that he wasn’t alone in his recruitment troubles. The number of graduates was dropping because the number of applicants was dropping.
Braben and other concerned parties looked for a cause. “In my opinion, the rot started much earlier,” he says. “It started in the secondary schools with ICT – basically, teaching Microsoft Office and how to use a PC.”
Like Eric Schmidt, many other luminaries of the UK computing scene and, more recently, secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, Braben realised that the ICT curriculum taught the consumption of software at the expense of the skills needed to build and maintain it.