The Micro Revolution

5/23/2012 6:01:32 PM

Kids nowadays - they're so good at getting the latest apps and using social media, but what's lacking is an actual understanding of how computers really work. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is looking to change all that with a revolutionary little computer.

Most of today's devices are tailored for content consumption. Sure, smartphones and tablets are fine for surfing the Web, playing games, watching videos and listening to music but their locked-down platforms fall flat when it comes to actually creating content.

The average tech-sawy teenager's experience with making something on a computer doesn't extend far beyond setting up blogs or using a photo editor. Even computer classes focus more on using Word, Excel and Internet Explorer rather the real guts of computing.

Description: Description: Description:  How young is too young on social media networks

How young is too young on social media networks

This wasn't the case back in 1981. Personal computers were slowly trickling into people's homes. The British Broadcasting Corporation, the United Kingdom's public TV broadcaster, wanted a microcomputer to go along with its series on the future of computing, something that could be offered to schools as well. In Cambridge, the UK's own Silicon Valley, the graduate students at Acorn Computers knocked a prototype together just in time, showed it to the BBC and promptly won the contract. The BBC Micro was born.

British kids grew up in the 1980s learning to use affordable computers like the BBC Micro, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64. These machines were simple motherboards hidden inside keyboard cases and hooked up to television sets. The Micro's 8-bit 4MHz processor and 16KB RAM were good enough for simple colour graphics and a BASIC interpreter gave schoolchildren a head start into programming - and a helping hand into the new digital economy. The open hardware and software also meant hackers could tinker and add functionality, creating a whole industry around third party bits and inspiring an entire generation of tech startups.

Description: Description: Description: in the hands of British schoolchildren

In the hands of British schoolchildren.

Acorn Computers disappeared from the industry soon after as cheap IBM-compatible personal computers cornered the market, but not before spinning off a bunch of units, including a very famous ARM Holdings. ARM is the world's largest designer of mobile processors and licenses its cores and instruction sets to industry players like Samsung, Apple, NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. It's very likely that all your mobile devices and embedded electronics run ARM processors.

All this comes back to Cambridge and the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Foundation's members wanted to bring back the spirit of the BBC Micro and get kids learning, programming and tinkering with computers again. The key would be a cheap, simple computer that would still be powerful enough to meet most of today's requirements - the Raspberry Pi. Six years in the making, it's a system-on-chip board the size of a credit card running off micro-USB power. Display output is through HDMI and composite video, there's a 3.5 mm headphone jack and the Model B variant has an Ethernet jack too. An extra USB Wi-fi adapter could provide wireless connectivity. Hook up the Pi to a TV set and a keyboard and you're good to go.

Its 700MHz ARM11 processor sips power while the Broadcom GPU, the same as those in Nokia Symbian handsets, has enough grunt to do OpenGL 3D and decode 1080p video. Debian Linux runs off an SD card and an Android port is on the way too. That's packing a lot of power into a tiny package and the best part is the price - just US$25 for the Model A, USS35 for the Model B.

That incredibly low price makes the Pi attractive for anyone interested in the BBC Micro's original mission. Developing countries could easily outfit classrooms with computers at a fraction of the cost of existing beige boxes, getting an entire generation on the Internet and joining the global information economy.

For me, the Pi is a hacker's dream. Imagine connecting it to a television set, even an old CRT unit that's gathering dust in the storeroom, to instantly turn it into a computer or a media streamer. Pair it with a touchscreen and 3G radio and slap it into a car to make a GPS navigator, media player and Internet terminal. You could hook it up to an Arduino board, sensors and motors for DIY hacks like alarm systems, home automation and home 3D printing... there's even talk of building robots using the Pi as a brain.

Description: Description: Description: Original the Raspberry Pi Foundation

Original the Raspberry Pi Foundation

The first batch of ten thousand units have completely sold out although delivery is delayed because a faulty Ethernet jack was used for the Model B. The Pi's hardware design and most of its software are open source and the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants others to re-use and improve on it. Open hardware, software and services - the dream is to make computers available to everyone, everywhere, a Pi or a few in each home.

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