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Q&A: can a £15 computer rekindle the UK tech industry?

raspberry pi

By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 6 May 2011 at 17:07

UK charity Raspberry Pi has this week demonstrated a £15 computer that it hopes will rekindle interest in programming and computer science among children.

The matchbox-sized device is predictably low-spec, featuring a 700MHz ARM11 processor, 128MB of SDRAM, OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics, USB connectivity and a SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot.

It might not sound like the most progressive of hardware, but that's not the point – the unit is intended to give children and hobbyists access to the nuts and bolts of a computer and teach them how to make them work. A far cry from the vacuum-sealed technology inside most modern consumer electronics.

We spoke to Raspberry Pi trustee Eben Upton, who is hoping the device can spark a re-emergence of the British technology genius.

Q. What was the starting point for the idea?

A. I used to teach at the University of Cambridge and was part of the process of interviewing sixth formers for Computer Science, and that's where I noticed the need to do something.

When I was there as a student in the mid-1990s, the typical skillset that undergraduates came through the door with would be assembly language, maybe a bit of C, BASIC and a certain amount of hardware hacking.

The big problem has been that people used to learn the stuff off their own back – you used to have hardware that you could hack on and that's a big problem

By the time I was actually interviewing, ten years later, that had changed to mostly HTML from people who had done a web page and the really good ones would maybe have done PHP – you'd get the occasional exception, but the skills have declined.

It was as if there was a pipeline of hobbyists and then one day we stopped topping the pipeline up with ten year olds and gradually this wave has passed through the pipeline, first through the universities and then the workplace.

The numbers are horrifying – you stop picking 80 students out of 500 applicants and you're picking 80 students out of 200. Then it's in the workplace and, before you know it, anyone you hire in their early 20s, you pretty much have to train them up before they can make a high-grade contribution.

Q. Is that a problem with the schooling system or a reflection on the way young people interact with technology?

A. I don't think this is something we should blame entirely on the education system, although we do feel the focus on ICT has driven out proper computer science from the school curriculum. But it never had a major take-up.

The big problem has been that people used to learn the stuff off their own back – you used to have hardware that you could hack on and that's a big problem.

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User comments

No headlines from this chap

Cambridge lecturer says "School system not really to blame for computer skill decline"
"Points out computer science classes never really had much of a take up anyway."

What, no major story here? Perhaps he should have blamed the schools...?

By greemble on 6 May 2011

Just to also say

What a great idea!

- hope this really takes off

By greemble on 6 May 2011

Will there be any good documentation or online lessons on making things for it etc?

I may be interested in it if there is.

The most I ever did were a few basic lines of HTML in school.

By tech3475 on 6 May 2011

Great idea!

Oh dear oh my - HTML hadn't even been thought of when I went to school!

I don't have a career in IT but have been a hobbyist. I wrote pretty detailed programs on the ZX Spectrum, then some years later I could develop Visual Basic applications, then I became adept with HTML in Hot Metal Pro.

All the time the technology has progressed but I actually find that I - as a humble amateur - am able to produce less.

May be I don't invest the time that I used to, but something inside me morns the passing of accessible amateur computing.

By ironbath on 6 May 2011

Fantastic

Put me down for one

By zebiddy on 6 May 2011

Great idea!

Sounds like fun - robotics could be interesting, if used with something like Lego or Meccano for instance.

By SwissMac on 7 May 2011

More forthright comments on ICT

If you watch the BBC video interview at BBC , you will get slightly more forthright comments from David Braben. He basically says that ICT replaced what used to be called typing rather than computing!

By milliganp on 7 May 2011

BBC LInk

Tried to embed it but PCPro website system is rubbish.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13292450

By milliganp on 7 May 2011

"predictably low-spec"

25 years ago I was installing 50MHz Sun workstations with 8Mb of memory (which cost £10k+) into city trading desks. They were not considered "low spec". This device has 16x all of that. Just because windows needs 2GHz/2Gb just to open a desktop window sensibly does not mean it can't be done more efficiently.

By milliganp on 7 May 2011

I agree - the spec is just fine. This'll only work if the tools are accessible.

I, and everyone who works in my software department, want one of these in a cracker for Christmas. We have thought of about 50 applications for it!

I'll only work if there is a basic interpreter (or something similar) on it from the get go. Keep it simple, simple, simple.

I wish it had some more I/O, though! A nice simple strip connector so you can wire up some motors, LEDs and switches.. Mmmmmm..

By scombellack on 7 May 2011

Expansion Capability

The picture above show the system with a 12Mp camera module in an on-board expansion socket. Further expansion could be done via the USB port. It would be very easy to produce a low cost docking station with expansion capability while keeping the basic device cost very low.

By milliganp on 7 May 2011

Specification is not an issue

I built a DAC device with my BBC micro and recorded and played back music in 1984 - my own home-made Mp3 player.
The BBC Micro had 28K of available RAM - the key thing was it came with two built-in programming languages.
The irony here is this device, like ipods and DVD players and most phones, use the ARM chip with spawned from Acorn and the BBC.

By cheysuli on 8 May 2011

The problem is not hardware availability ...

... but the willingness to teach real engineering in schools.

Judging from the complexity of the circuit in picture, I seriously doubt this could be delivered retail as low as £15 - but it looks much more complex than it needs to be.

There are many single-chip options already available. At the low end you can use PIC or similar 8-bit microcontrollers or the Arduino platform and teach register-level assembly code programming for a proper grounding.

Then you can move up to 32-Bit ARM microcontrollers such as MBED or the .NET MF system and teach high-level language programming while still using a single-chip target.

There is no shortage of good hardware for teaching physical computing. The shortage is good teachers, good curriculum material and a culture that values real engineering!

By JohnAHind on 8 May 2011

What a great idea

I'm 54 years old, I built my first computer from discreet components and diagrams in electronics magazines. I learned to program in assembler, basic, C, Fortran etc. In the late 70s my employer was looking for people to retrain as programmers and engineers and I've been doing it ever since.

I maintain that I lived through one of the golden ages of computing when people pushed themselves and the hardware available to the limit. During this wonderful period I had a Spectrum, an Oric, a TRS80, a BBC B, an Archimedes and an Amiga 500, all before my first PC and could program them all. I once wrote a printer driver that enabled me to print from the BBC on an IBM golf ball printer.


That doesn't happen these days, as a hobby computing has gone, it's become a very niche activity. I remember a whole host of magazines aimed at the hobbyist that have long since gone.


Like many others I was completely self taught, if I got stuck I got like minded friends to help with a solution.

I regret the passing of those wonderful machines that encouraged exploration and experimentation and hope that something like this will encourage people, both young and old, to view computers as more than something to play games on or a tool for sending emails.

By njm1404 on 8 May 2011

What a great idea

I'm 54 years old, I built my first computer from discreet components and diagrams in electronics magazines. I learned to program in assembler, basic, C, Fortran etc. In the late 70s my employer was looking for people to retrain as programmers and engineers and I've been doing it ever since.

I maintain that I lived through one of the golden ages of computing when people pushed themselves and the hardware available to the limit. During this wonderful period I had a Spectrum, an Oric, a TRS80, a BBC B, an Archimedes and an Amiga 500, all before my first PC and could program them all. I once wrote a printer driver that enabled me to print from the BBC on an IBM golf ball printer.


That doesn't happen these days, as a hobby computing has gone, it's become a very niche activity. I remember a whole host of magazines aimed at the hobbyist that have long since gone.


Like many others I was completely self taught, if I got stuck I got like minded friends to help with a solution.

I regret the passing of those wonderful machines that encouraged exploration and experimentation and hope that something like this will encourage people, both young and old, to view computers as more than something to play games on or a tool for sending emails.

By njm1404 on 8 May 2011

Let the children play

njm1404, I'm a similar age to you and I too cut my teeth on similar systems. I constructed, dismantled, programmed and soldered my way through the late 70's and 80's - just for fun. The sense of achievement was immense. Today's vacuum-packed gadgets and PCs are hugely limiting in their native state. I believe it's destroying a sense of exploration and wonder in today's generation. Hooray for bare-board systems like this. Get kids intrigued by what each bit does. Let them explore, make mistakes and sometimes even produce something brilliant.

By AndyChips on 9 May 2011

Harware Availability - @johnAHind

I think you are trying to go too far. There is an argument that engineering should not be a subject for secondary education. Also the types of devices you describe both cost a couple of hundred quid (not a great amount for schools) but more importantly they all need a PC to control them and on which to do the programming. The whole point of Raspberry Pi is that it is basically an ultra-cheap, full-function Linux PC which by being cheap provides a platform where programming taught in the classroom can be practised at home in a very safe environment.
As to the price point this device is very similar to the pogo-plug like devices in sale today and they have probable BOM costs of $20-$30 so although £15 might be adventurous £30 is certainly achievable in the short term (in fact the original article posited a cost of $25 which is much closer to £20 by the time you add VAT.

By milliganp on 9 May 2011

changes in computer technology effect teaching

There have been some basic changes in operating systems to prevent people using hardware, assembly language etc; on Windows and Apple computers. This limits students at school getting into the "guts" of the computer.
The limitation of USB is that it cannot be used for timing where as serial and parallel could, interfaces could. But these have stopped being included in modern computers.
I wrote a book on interfacing computers, before Linux existed, but it is still relevant if you have a PC to interface it to. Unfortunately most teachers do not have the funds to buy computer kits such as these. Nor do they have the training to use them.
Bring back basic computers such as these, with an operating system on them!

By syephencadams on 9 May 2011

Hardware - too much availability?

Most of the projects I undertook in the early days were either because what I wanted didn't exist or was prohibitively expensive. These days you can buy almost anything you can imagine at a price to fit most budgets.

A friend and me built an A4 plotter out of Lego. Not only did we have to build the hardware but we had to build the interface and write the software to control the felt tip pen lashed to the Lego with elastic bands.

Our sense of pride when it drew the first line was huge, getting it to draw a square gave such an immense buzz you'd think we'd put a man on the moon!

@syephencadams

Modern operating systems like Windows and Apple OS X don't limit access to the 'guts' of a computer. Windows, Linux and OS X all have terminal or DOS windows that allow shell programs and scripts to be run. You can still do all the things we did in the 70s you just have to remember that the Modern OS hides this from most users, who, to be fair, aren't interested in what goes on behind the scenes.

By njm1404 on 9 May 2011

@milliganp

To work this device stand-alone you would have to factor in the cost of a display and keyboard as well as the device itself, at which point you'd be better off with a netbook.

But if we want to get our engineering culture back we have to enthuse children about making real, physical things and today's microcontroller chips could enable that at very low cost. There is nothing like programming assembler, with no OS, direct to the registers of a RAM and EPROM limited 8-bit microcontroller to teach a really solid grounding in computing. That is the real equivalent to the Spectrums, Atoms and BBC Micros of yore. And robotics or physical computing has some of the pioneering excitement of the original micro generation.

By JohnAHind on 9 May 2011

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