Britain’s $25 computer is coming by Christmas

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Earlier this year British games pioneer David Braben surprised many people with the first appearance of the Raspberry Pi, a low-cost, open source computer aimed at children that he was helping to develop.

Now, six months on from that initial blitz of publicity, he says that it’s almost ready to go on sale for the first time. A finished version is due by the end of 2011, he told GigaOM, specifically aimed at programmers.

“It will be a small run of 10,000 machines given to developers in the hope that they will seed it with software,” Braben explains. “Sometime next year we should be able to release the consumer version.”

In and of itself, the device is pretty interesting. Inside a business card-sized case — they have moved away from the USB stick-style version that was previously shown — the computer acts as a hub for software and hardware.

The various ports allow you to plug in a mouse, keyboard, TV or monitor (both analog and digital), connect to Ethernet, or plug in an SD card or wireless dongle. In terms of what it can do, right now the machine can run a few Linux distros on its ARM architecture, but is looking for more options: which is why the first batch will be targeted at the software development community.

Here’s a video interview with the organization’s Eben Upton, conducted by ARMDevices.net, that shows you what they’re doing.

Although the charity has yet to announce precise details, it has said that it plans to offer a “buy one, give one” model that allows people to pay for extra units that can be distributed to children.

The main aim here, like other schemes such as the One Laptop Per Child project, is based around the idea of improving technical education. In particular, Raspberry Pi is about helping kids learn to code, rather than simply learn to use software like Microsoft Office — a move in education slammed by many, including Eric Schmidt of Google. In that, he says, it may capture the spirit of the BBC Micro, an educational, technological project that Raspberry Pi’s Cambridge-based team are intimately familiar with. It’s not the only scheme to do so.

Although Raspberry Pi will be available for worldwide shipping, the organization — which is a charity — plans to focus on rolling it out in Britain, and in particular to raise enough funds to distribute it widely.

“Our ambition is to give it for free to every school child in the country,” says Braben.

This will, if things go to plan, involve giving machines to an annual cohort of 700,000 children in a particular school grade: something that would cost approximately $17.5 million annually.

“People often say that every child has a PC at home,” he says. “And yes, if you look across the South East of England in particular, there are plenty of places where that is true — and Cambridge is probably one of them. But it is certainly not the case everywhere.”

But is a $25 computer what kids really need? When I wrote about the project earlier this year, I wondered whether building a new device actually ignored the fact that many children do actually have access to a computer — just not a PC. There are millions upon millions of mobile phones in the hands of kids all over Britain, and many times more than that worldwide.

When asked about this, Braben suggests that the relationship between computers and phones is complicated. Smartphones comparable in power to Raspberry Pi are still not common among children, even in privileged homes (and for good reason) and there are so many different operating systems, variants and languages involved that learning to code on one may not be particularly useful in a broad sense.

In the end, though, he thinks that something like Raspberry Pi can “cohabit” with mobile.

“The thing you have to realize is that most computers are pretty fundamentally uncool to kids — whereas what they do is exciting,” he says.

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