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Summary:

British researchers have built a cheap, fully-functioning computer the size of a USB stick. But while efforts to bring low-cost computing to the masses are laudable, do they misunderstand the reality of the way the world uses computers in the 21st century?

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry PiThere are plenty of projects out there to build a low-cost computer, but few of them are as audacious as Raspberry Pi, a barebones, mini-machine project that’s the brainchild of legendary British games developer David Braben.

Braben, one of the men behind 1980s classic Elite, is now head of U.K. studio Frontier, but he’s continued his lifelong fascination with trying to help people learn how computers really work. That’s why the non-profit group has assembled an entire computer inside a USB stick, which it hopes to sell for just £15 ($24.50).

The whole thing seems barely large enough to carry a fully-functioning computer, but that’s what it is. Inside it there’s a 700MHz ARM-based processor, 128MB of RAM and a fully functioning operating system (the Ubuntu version of Linux). With an HDMI port at one end, it can be plugged into a screen, and the USB port allows it to be connected to a keyboard. There’s even an SD card slot for storage. Of course, these items add to the overall cost as well. The system is currently being prototyped, but the barriers to production seem fairly small.

It’s quite astonishing, really — and shows how fast technology has moved in the 30 years of personal computing.

Braben says projects like this are vital for introducing children in both the developed world and developing countries to real computing and to real programming, without a prohibitive cost barrier.

In this video, he explains the idea to the BBC:

The idea is that a cheap, lean machine allows children — who now spend more and more time learning to use pieces of software such as Microsoft Office that are many layers of abstraction away from the machine — to really start to understand how the computer works and get at the guts of it. According to Braben:

“You can use it to learn programming, to run Twitter, Facebook, whatever — but also to be able to understand the whole process of programming. A lot of things have been obfusticated [sic] these days, in the sense that you can’t get at them. There’s so much between you and doing something interesting or creative that it gets in the way — and hopefully this device will be one of the pieces that helps change that.”

I have a real soft spot for projects like this, whether it’s high-end attempts to rebalance the global education system such as the One Laptop Per Child project spun out of MIT, or the attempt by groups such as PlayPower to recondition existing low-cost hardware and open programming to a generation of kids in developing countries. I think they’re massively important in challenging our conceptions of what technology means, and vital in helping those who are capable of advanced programming to realize their abilities.

But there’s always a niggle or two. Are cheap computers really what the world needs? Is the gap between proprietary software and bedroom coding really the barrier that we need to vault?

Many people in developing countries already have access to a low-cost computer, in the form of the mobile phone. There are billions of devices out there, already in people’s hands. And though they may not be as open as education advocates would like, they are powerful and often programmable to some degree. Raspberry Pi and projects like it are laudable and necessary, but would they be better off harnessing the devices that are already out there?

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  1. I love it for more selfish reasons. A $25 computer than can do 720 video, has one port for hdmi and one for a usb hub has all kinds of great uses. For starters, slapping a small, genuinely usable machine on the living room TV for streaming video, email and web wouldn’t be an expensive aggravation.

  2. Wai Yip Tung Friday, May 6, 2011

    It will make a hell of embedded computer. Does it has wifi?

  3. Next step sync to brain. Its coming..sooner than we think.

    1. That was something I predicted to my physics students more than 30 years ago. Tie it into a person’s optical cord / brain and he would see whatever was calculated / processed. Already a camera has been connected in this manner to give vision to a blind person.

  4. Clint Ricker Saturday, May 7, 2011

    Yeah, sure. Those spoiled kids in 3rd world countries can just get access to the family mobile phone. What else could they possibly need? I suppose I should ditch the family computer so that my kid can get a leg up on his future through a 2″, 128×64 resolution screen running SymbianOS–anything else would simply be overkill. Hmmm…he could also have a bright future on the thumb wrestling circuits.

    Programmable to some degree? Do you know how you program a phone? You…use a computer. The laptop/desktop variety.

    Seriously, though, put a cell radio / battery / display on the Raspberry Pi and you have a smart phone. Yes, cell phone technology can and is doing wonders in developing nations. But, in the end, a developing nation primarily using cell phones as ersatz computers will, in 50 years, still be a developing nation. It’s not the processor, it’s the interface. If the mobile phone drives a normal keyboard / mouse–great, now you’ve got something that can not only consume content, but readily create with as well. But, until we get to that point, outfitting a developing nation with Symbian phones instead of computers capable of unfettered access to content and creation is a great way to ensure that, in 50 years, that nation is still a developing nation.

  5. Nicholas Chase Sunday, May 8, 2011

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your last question. The fact is most cell phones are so locked down that’s not possible, even Android phones. This is why an open source hardware smartphone would be a great thing for the developing world. Perhaps even a piece of hardware that could be upgraded later.

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