Friday, March 02, 2012

The Life of Pi

The UK has a rich heritage in computing, British hardware and software engineers having played a vitally important role in both the theory (mathematician Alan Turing) and practice (electrical engineer Tommy Flowers) of developing the world's first programmable electronic computer – Colossus – which was used to break the German Enigma code during World War II.

The UK was also home to a number of pioneering technology companies during the home computing revolution of the 1980s. Sinclair Research, headed by eccentric British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, released a series of products that sold for considerably less than anything produced by major American companies such as IBM and Apple. The ZX80 and ZX Spectrum introduced a generation of British youngsters to the concept of computer programming and the BBC Micro, produced by Acorn Computers (which also developed the ARM processor now favoured by mobile computing devices including the Apple iPhone), was subsidised by the British government to carry on the learning in school. The DIY approach that was prevalent in the 1980s is widely credited with inspiring the software engineers that went on to make the UK a global hub for the computer games industry, developing international hit games such as the Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto series.

Since that time, British companies have continued to innovate but the industry has fared less well. Government education policy has singularly failed to inspire a new generation of British software engineers, a fact that was recognised by former Google CEO, now Executive Chairman, Dr Eric Schmidt during his keynote speech at the annual MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh in August 2011. He said, the country that “invented computers in both concept and practice” risked “throwing away [its] great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made.”

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, a British not-for-profit company established by Eben Upton, Robert Mullins and a group of like-minded Cambridge academics, is now aiming to address those concerns and reinvigorate computer education. The aim is to provide every child in Britain with a credit-card sized PC board with simple components and a limited instruction set – costing just £22 – to encourage an understanding of electronics, coding and the relationship between the two. Modern games consoles, smartphones and tablet computers are monolithic devices that limit and discourage programmability. The Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, embodies the traditional 'hacker' ethic and encourages people to learn and play.

Sceptics have said that people do not need or want to know how to program – comparatively few people understand engines, yet most people are happy to drive cars. The Raspberry Pi is clearly not for those people. The device is designed to appeal to people with an imagination, who understand the potential that computers embody. Most of the biggest industries in the world rely on software engineering to some degree, and in an increasingly digital media landscape understanding how to program may one day become part of basic literacy.

Imaginative children in their bedrooms keying in BASIC on their ZX Spectrum were the future computer industry innovators and significant numbers of people are already being enthused by the same ideology, as embodied by the Raspberry Pi. The first batch of ARM-powered devices went on sale at 06:00 on Wednesday 29th February 2012 and sold out within minutes.

Will Raspberry Pi be a worthy inheritor of the Spectrum and Acorn Computers legacy? As we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

Find out more at the Raspberry Pi Foundation website.


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