Can the Raspberry Pi save computing?
Posted on 20 Apr 2012 at 10:20
A Cambridge charity is making computing fun again with a low-cost piece of hardware. Stuart Andrews reveals the bold ambition behind the Raspberry Pi
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 moreHands 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.
Good, but no cigar....
I think this is potentially a great idea, and I'll almost certainly buy one. I very much doubt it will make much difference to Britain's IT 'skills gap'.
It's not just the UK, but Worldwide where consumption exceeds creation by a mile.
The popularity of the various igadgets confirms that people (worldwide) aren't that interested: they simply want to absorb the dross someone else has made.
Mrs Thatcher's 'consumer society' writ large. Who on earth thought the outcome would be different?
Prior to the 'consumer revolution' when we used to be 'patients', 'travellers', 'customers' before we all became mere 'consumers', people aspired to creating things. The maligned 1960's epitomised the transformation of society based on the creative optimism of those who came back from WW2.
The BBC IT projects (including the 'B') sprang from the optimism and enthusiasm of the post-war generation as we reached adulthood.
Then came the 90's.
It's largely a 'philosophical' problem and it really is rooted in attitudes spawned in the 1980s. The get rich quick \ greed is good values of the City are now embedded in our consciousness. Why create something when you can parasite off someone else's efforts?
Having said all that, hopefully many kids WILL get to play with one of these and many will likewise be spurrred into new ways of seeing. But it won't, on its own, cause any sort of rennaisance. Sadly.
By wittgenfrog on 20 Apr 2012
Are the statements in the article correct?
"This is something where rival products, such as Solid-Run’s CuBox, the BeagleBoard or the Rhombus-Tech Allwinner A10, struggle to compete."
So I googled one of these.
"The Allwinner A10 CPU has been developed in, and is sold in, the People's Republic of China. Its mass-volume price is around $7, yet it is a 400-pin highly feature-rich 1.2ghz ARM Cortex A8 with a MALI400 GPU. It has the distinction of having the highest bang-per-buck ratio of any SoC available at the time of writing, by quite a margin. Its price and features is causing massive disruption of the tablet market in China (a minor recession was caused by widespread cancellation of prior committments to other SoCs!), as every factory in Shenzen scrambles to compete with hundreds of other factories for the same end-user market: tablets and PVRs."
By FrancisKing on 20 Apr 2012
Whilst their ambitions are honourable, I can't help but reiterate their many failures.
Their first failure came from not identifying the meteoric popularity of the device on the run up to when they opened the pre-orders.
On the first day their website went into meltdown and didn't have any way of producing anywhere near the quantities demanded.
Secondly, they went with RS and Farnell in an attempt to resolve the fulfilment issues for full scale production. Whilst a great idea on the surface, it very soon materialised they couldn't handle the demand either, the RPi has been likened to an Apple release in its sheer scale and the two companies just couldn't cope, also suffering website problems and administrative failures.
Thirdly, the foundation failed to ditch RS and Farnell when they failed to realise it needed CE certification, and poor handling of the Ethernet connector fiasco.
These are things you would have thought RS and Farnell would have been totally capable of carrying out quickly and efficiently, being their business, but they have never needed to fulfil orders of this magnitude and again aren't geared up for it.
Fourthly, the foundation failed to find any way of prioritising pre-orders for those who had genuine educational, experimental and electronic tinkering interests in the device, as opposed to the vast majority, who just wanted one for an extremely cheap media centre system.
Fair enough, the foundation can't expect to be up there with the likes of Apple in terms of production rates and so forth, and Apple have themselves been quite poor at meeting expected demand in the past, but lessons learned, Apple have improved, and were a great example for the foundation at the time of preorder - it's not like the whole internet wasn't abuzz with RPi excitement, what with its home theatre PC capabilities for such a small price.
The foundation could even have scored a production and distribution hit with China, Foxconn themselves instead of RS/Farnell.
To this day I find it incredible that Apple got an Ipad 3 into the UK, in my hands, a single week after their announcement at San Francisco, whilst I still await my RPi, as pre-ordered on the third of March, having been given an August to September delivery date! I can't help but feel extremely bitter about it all.
By Heliosphan on 22 Apr 2012
Sorry, not impressed
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.”
On Windows, what about installing Microsoft's excellent and completely free "Express" range of development tools? Or even fire up notepad and you can start coding in vbscript, no extra installs required?
Or on non Windows platforms, what about java? PHP, C++, BASH, Perl? Etc, etc
The solution to schoolies not having a clue about computer programming? Change the dumbed down curriculum so you don't get an A* in ICT just for doing a couple of Excel macros and typing a CV into Word.
Cheap and wonderful though I'm sure it is, this device is NOT needed.
By poke36879 on 4 May 2012
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