There 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.
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?