Can the Raspberry Pi save computing?
Another trustee, Alan Mycroft, professor of computing at the computer laboratory of Cambridge University, links this to “the steady push to use products invented by someone else that are too mysterious to learn how to work”.
Mycroft relates this to modern cars: “You look under the bonnet and you don’t know what the bits do – and that’s probably necessary.” The difference is, as Mycroft says, that with cars “we still don’t say that, therefore, we don’t need anyone who knows anything about cars apart from how to drive them”.
“A group of us felt that we must be able to do something about this,” says Braben, “and so the formation of Raspberry Pi as a charity to try to solve the problem.” Braben explains that several solutions were mooted, ranging from new devices to software. “A lot of people said, ‘well, why not just make it a software platform?’, but actually the problem is a bigger one. We needed the spirit of the 1980s.”
Why the Pi?
So why a new device? First, compatibility. Braben talks of a meeting of the working group, Computing at School, at which a teacher demonstrated an amazing piece of software designed to teach principles of object-oriented programming to children as young as 11 years of age. Other teachers wanted to try it, but hit the usual obstacles – different operating systems, different compilers, a total mismatch.
More importantly, there’s a feeling in the foundation that the current generation of computers is too opaque. They make it simple to use features and functions that have already been created, but not to make anything yourself.
As Mycroft puts it: “How can I put an X on the screen in Microsoft Windows, or in Linux for that matter? Well, I can get the right graphics interface and I can write out to it, but it isn’t like the old BBC.”
And it’s this gap that Raspberry Pi can address. Simply getting to grips with a language and a compiler might be daunting enough, but that’s without the difficulty and expense of setting it up on a modern PC.
“Thinking back to if I were 15 or 16 now, what would I do?” says Braben. “It would actually be very difficult to get into programming, because even if I had a PC at home I’d have to beg, borrow or steal a compiler and get it set up. Unless I have a well-motivated parent, this is actually a big challenge.”
The joy of the 1980s home computers, and even of the 16-bit computers that followed them, was that there was only the tiniest gap between consumption and creation.
On the ZX Spectrum or the BBC Micro, the environment through which you used the PC was also the environment you used to program it; you could go from powering on to “Hello World” within minutes.
Braben talks of feeling “a sense of wonder at seeing a ten or 15-line program, and being able to understand what it does”. Mycroft loves the immediacy. “It isn’t an emulated or interpreted environment. You’re doing it on your kit, which is here – not some mysterious bit of something on the web.”
“There’s something about this that gives you a soft look – a smooth introduction – into programming,” adds Eben Upton, another of the Raspberry Pi founders. “I think all of us have ridden that learning curve, and one of the things we’re trying to address is the fact that the front bit of that learning curve has been chopped off.”
Pi in the classroom
Remodelling the learning curve is at the heart of how Raspberry Pi will be used in schools. The plan is for a two-step launch, with the current bare developer boards going out to enthusiasts, partners and developers over the next few months, and an educational/consumer product release mid-year.