Raspberry Pi teaches programming on the cheap

Raspberry Pi teaches programming on the cheap

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News & Events - Engineering News

March 1, 2012

While it may not surprise people much in retrospect, some British retailers were startled to find exactly how popular a $35 computer could be.

The BBC reports that the new Raspberry Pi, a computer on a single chip about the size of a credit card, went on sale on Wednesday, February 29, and promptly swamped the two sites managing the launch, crashing one of them.

Put together by the U.K.-based Raspbery Pi Foundation, the new computer is not really meant as product for general use. The group brought together volunteers from around the country to build the a low-cost computer that could made and sold cheaply to help encourage younger Brits to learn about programming.

The device itself, despite its compact nature, has all the normal ports a full computer might, including those for a monitor, keyboard, mouse and even internet. The larger model is currently for sale at 22 pounds, or $35, but another smaller version will hit stores later this year. That version will be only 16 pounds, or around $25.

Eben Upton, an engineer living in Cambridge and the founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, explained to The Guardian that the need for a tool like this became apparent to him when he was interviewing candidates for degree courses.

"None of them seemed to know enough about what a computer really was or how it worked. I found it worrying." Later explaining to The Guardian, "What was needed was a return to an exciting, programmable machine like the old BBC Micro; and it had to be affordable, say around £20, so every child could potentially have one."

The BBC Micro was a home computer introduced in 1981 that was specifically designed with education in mind, while the Spectrum, introduced a year later, was one of the first truly popular models of home computer. Both played an important role in developing a generation of younger people who were familiar with the inner workings of computers. One of those people was game designer David Braben, who originally suggested the idea of recreating a low-cost educational computer that ultimately became the Raspberry Pi.

But Braben was hardly the only person who found the idea attractive. Aside from the thousands of people who came together to help design and build the device, the BBC reports that the British government has begun to take some interest. The U.K.'s secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, mentioned the Raspberry Pi in a speech about improving understanding of programming in the country, and the Department of Education has already begun shifting a greater emphasis on such efforts. Upton was particularly concerned with dispelling the notion that programming is boring, hoping to use the Raspberry Pi to show how it can be a powerful outlet for creativity.

While the Raspberry Pi Foundation had initially hoped to keep production of the device domestic, officials from the group noted that their decision to use a Chinese manufacturer will ultimately allow them to scale up production much more quickly than they would have otherwise. With both of the computer's retailers depleting their available stocks in a matter of hours, the issue is an important one. But with the current setup, the group should be in a good position to move on to other projects while the manufacturer and retailers hash out the details of production numbers.

"We didn't realize how successful this was going to be," Upton told the BBC. "This means we can scale to volume. Now we can concentrate on teaching people to program."

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