Five years ago, Cambridge University lecturer Eben Upton came to the startling realisation that many of his degree course applicants had no idea of how a computer really worked. His sense of bewilderment is shared by many in the IT field. “I have always been astonished that basic computer literacy and coding are not part of our schools’ curriculum,” says Prism IT Solutions co-founder Gary David Smith.
The problem, as Smith sees it, is one of approach. “Currently the ITC taught in schools is more to do with how to use programmes rather than how to create them,” he explains.
Eben Upton’s solution to this education deficiency went on sale at the end of February. The Raspberry Pi computer is essentially a tiny circuit board with a surface area not much bigger than a credit card, into which a typical USB keyboard and mouse can be plugged.
It’s powered by a 700MHz single-core Broadcom processor – the likes of which can be found inside mid-level smartphones – and a surprisingly potent GPU that’s capable of running 1080p video at 30 frames per second. This is backed by 256MB of RAM, while an SD card slot stands in place of a dedicated hard drive. It runs on the popular freeware operating system, Linux.
There’s also an ethernet port for wired internet access, while monitor output is served by either an HDMI slot or an old fashioned TV aerial port – an echo of the old hobbyist spirit that informed the Raspberry Pi’s creation.
As Upton explains, “what was needed was a return to an exciting, programmable machine like the old BBC Micro.”
Back in the 1980s, affordable home computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro offered an accessible entry point to computer coding for thousands of techie youths. Their simple, unadorned programming language was relatively easy to pick up for those with a healthy sense of curiosity and a vaguely mathematical mindset.
But the Raspberry Pi is intended for more than just bedroom noodling. Like the BBC Micro, the Raspberry Pi is stateless, which means it can be restored to its default settings extremely easily. This – along with its extreme affordability – makes it an ideal teaching tool, as any changes made to the software can be undone without the need for a lengthy reboot or reinstallation process.
The Raspberry Pi has already been a huge success, selling out its initial production run immediately, and going on to sell at a rate of around 700 units per second. Such was the early level of demand, in fact, that the website set up to deal with Raspberry Pi sales crashed under the strain.
Though the original intention was to have the Raspberry Pi computer built in the UK, simple economics have led to production being outsourced to China. However, the devices will be assembled and distributed by two British companies.
Will the Raspberry Pi initiative kick off a new breed of computer enthusiasts here in the UK? Gary David Smith thinks so, and he sees no reason why the concept can’t be taken even further. According to him, “there is nothing to stop one of the IT giants from producing a similar product.” Smith continues, “the Raspberry Pi has demonstrated that there is a hunger amongst young people to engage with coding and programming.”
Who knows? In around 30 years time, maybe we’ll all be reading about the next Steve Jobs, and how he or she was inspired by a tiny computer conceived in the UK.