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The Raspberry Pi: Is it REALLY the saviour of British computing?

UK IT needs more than rose-tinted BBC Micro memories, thank you

Raspberry Pi

Opinion It is fair to say that the Raspberry Pi is a success. I love them, you love them, the whole world loves them. It has reminded the rest of the computing world that the UK - and Cambridge especially - has a proud computing heritage.

It’s hard to miss mentions of the Pi in the technology press each day. It is spoken of in hushed tones, revered as being something we British can be proud of – like Winston Churchill, or our innate suspicion of foreigners.

But I don’t think it will be The True Saviour of British Computing™, all on its own. Let me explain.

It’s this sentiment that bothers me: “The Pi will get kids programming again! It will unlock a new generation of young programmers! Bedroom-programming will be reborn! The UK will provide the world with the next Tim Berners-Lee,” and other such hyperbole. This all appears to come from technology journalism, rather than the Raspberry Pi Foundation itself.

The train of thought goes something like this:

  1. Computers are expensive, so not every family has one
  2. Everyone can afford a Pi
  3. The Pi is easy to tinker with
  4. It runs Linux - that’s programmable, isn’t it? Everyone knows that!
  5. Suddenly, lots more bedroom-programmers

Let’s discuss these points in turn.

“Computers are expensive, so not everyone has one”

I'd argue that computers are not expensive – and, actually, most families do have one. You can buy a brand new netbook from your High Street supermarket for only a couple of hundred quid. Secondhand computers have negligible value and can be bought for pocket change from secondhand shops. And even poor families tend to know at least one gamer with too much disposable income who can provide a hand-me-down.

Broadband is considered an essential service these days, and even poor families have it. So it seems fair to suggest that most households have a computer, even if it’s just for Facebook.

If there’s a lack of budding programmers in this country, it isn’t because they don’t have access to a computer.

“Everyone can afford a Pi”

Yep, I totally agree with that. Thirty quid for a computer this good? Bargain!

But that’s not the only cost, is it? You also need a case, a decent display with HDMI input, a power supply, some SD cards, a USB hub, a keyboard, a mouse, a network cable long enough to get to the ADSL modem, and a fair amount of desk space. All that added together is not far short of the cost of a supermarket netbook... and it's far messier, too. You also need access to another computer with an SD card reader in order to download Pi operating systems and copy them to a card - which brings us back to my earlier point.

Now, you, the adult geek, probably have most of those extras rattling around in a drawer in your Man Cave. But the Tim Berners-Lee of Tomorrow - who, at this moment, is reading comics and watching Almost Naked Animals - does not. Neither does the overworked IT department of your local school. They can’t just buy a lorry-load of Pis and hand them out - they’d have to find all the other bits too. After that, there’s a whole world of connectivity and support pain.

“The Pi is easy to tinker with”

Yes... and no. It is certainly easier to poke things into than a standard home computer, but I would argue that the Pi isn’t particularly forgiving for the young engineer just working out which end of a soldering iron is hot.

The power connector is a micro USB connector - they’re quite fragile. There’s no reset button on a Pi, so if you need to reset it then you’ll be abusing that connector quite a lot. There are some general-purpose connections for wiring electronic projects to the Pi, but they’re 3.3V rather than 5V, which is more common for anyone doing GCSE electronics. And there's very little circuitry to protect it from accidental short circuits. The Pi was built to a tight budget, and such protection was left out as collateral.

The best I can really say is that using an Pi in your electronics projects is probably easier than using a standard Windows PC, but that’s not saying much. If you want to teach kids to do electronics projects with a small computer then I’m not sure the Pi would be my first choice anyway. The Arduino is more sturdy, simpler, cheaper, easier to use and more resilient.

“It runs Linux - that’s programmable, isn't it? Everyone knows that!”

Yes, it can run Linux. But then, so can a home computer, and they've been able to do that for decades. If it was just down to Linux availability, we’d be overrun with budding programmers.

I am a computer programmer by profession – I never say “professional computer programmer” because it makes me snigger. I haven’t been out of work a single day since I left university in 1999. For most of that time I've worked in the computer games industry. That involves an awful lot of mathematics, advanced programming techniques, and writing solid and low-memory-footprint code for an industry that isn’t particularly tolerant of failure.

My responsibilities during three of those years included full-time administration of a rack of 40 Linux servers. This included build, installation, backups, maintenance, security, and so on.

I only tell you this so you appreciate where I'm coming from when I say that I don't consider Linux to be a friendly operating system for the casual user. It still perplexes me after all these years! Yes, it's very powerful and flexible, and I run many computers at home with it, but the cost of such flexibility is that configuration can be a nightmare.

And although Linux is considerably friendlier than it used to be (anyone remember the early days of Slackware?) I really wouldn’t like to think what sort of impression it would make to a young teenager who might just be taking his first geeky steps. Unix file permissions, package management, and root access are all very important, but I would suggest they are all hindrances to the budding young hobbyist. The OS could put him off before he even sees “Hello World”.

This isn’t the fault of Linux - it is what it is. It was made by the technically-savvy, for the technically-savvy. Nor is it the fault of the Raspberry Pi Foundation - it’s a sensible choice for the hardware and cost. But it is not the ideal choice for the adolescent hobbyist!

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