From Zero to hero: Why mini 'puter Oberon should grab Pi's crown

It's more kid-friendly... No really

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Two tiny, inexpensive, single-board educational computers just shipped. One has had lots of coverage already, but the odds are you've never heard of the other machine. However, the idea behind the obscure one is more important.

Hogging the limelight is the Raspberry Pi Zero, a computer so small and cheap it's being given away for free on a magazine cover – the way that software on cassette tape was 30 years ago.

In February 2012, the Raspberry Pi Foundation moved the goalposts for inexpensive computers with its first models: a workable if slow general-purpose computer for £25, cheap enough to be give to kids to play with – if they break it, it's no biggie.

As the Foundation planned, the open-source community has enthusiastically adopted the "RasPi". It now has a rich selection of software, add-ons and projects – although the "makers" love it so much that it's easy to forget it was meant to teach kids programming.

So, inevitably, it spawned a horde of rivals – the Banana Pi, Minnowboard, Odroid C1+, Creator Ci20 and so on. None have enjoyed the Pi's impact, partly because they’re from for-profit companies and partly because they range from a little to substantially more expensive.

So, now, there's a cheaper version: a cut-down Pi for a fiver.

It's a capable little machine in its way – it's a slightly faster version of the original Pi, with fewer ports. A decent if low-end single-core ARM, enough RAM to run a graphical desktop, and a ton of free languages and educational tools because it runs Linux.

But the Pi Zero is not so much an innovation as a response. It's an answer to devices such as the BBC's Micro:bit and the CodeBug and and C.H.I.P. The Pi Zero will do anything they will – possibly with the help of some similarly-cheap addons – and a ton more, as it's running a full operating system.

It will do great: the Foundation will shift millions of them, they'll get built into all manner of clever gadgets, and there will doubtless be faster successor models until they cost less than a London pint and are a competent desktop.

What they won't do, though, is transform computing in schools.

The Pi's strength is its cheapness and the simplicity of its hardware, but at heart, software-wise, it's a PC. No, not x86, but Linux is making that matter less and less now. Remember that there are hundreds more ARM cores than x86 ones out there – x86 boxes sell in the hundreds of millions per year, but ARMs sell in the billions.

There were some missed opportunities in creating the Raspberry Pi. The Foundation could have brought harmony and a de facto standard for firmware on ARM hardware – something the ARM world sorely needs. But since the Pi is actually controlled and booted by its GPU, ARM firmware is irrelevant to it. Failing that, the Foundation could have bundled RISC OS with it – the ARM chip's original OS, still alive and maintained, and which can fit a complete multitasking GUI into about 6MB.

But small and clever as RISC OS is, while it was radical in 1987, it's very retro now. It can't handle multiple cores, and while BBC BASIC is a great language, for better or worse, the world's moved on.

The thing that the Micro:Bit and CodeBug try to address is that Linux isn't a kid-friendly OS. It's vastly complex, containing thousands of bits of code in dozens of languages – even skilled professionals can't fully understand the whole thing now. In the launch video, Pi project founder Eben Upton fondly recalls his first machines, a BBC Micro and an Amiga 600. A kid could fathom those; I did, with my ZX Spectrum. Linux? No chance. Twenty-first century Unix is too big, too weird, too full of arcane 1960s strangeness.

Conventional wisdom is that this complexity is an unavoidable consequence of modern software's age and maturity, and that it's worth it. You just ignore the stuff you don't need.

Which brings me to the other cheap little educational computer you've never heard of: the OberonStation. Remember Pascal? A million-odd Delphi programmers do, fondly. Oberon is what Pascal grew up to be. It's a language and a whole OS built in that single language. And as the preface to its manual says:

… its primary goal was to design and implement an entire system from scratch, and to structure it in such a way that it can be described, explained, and understood as a whole.

No, it won't do the 1,001 things Linux will, but it's no toy.

Oberon is current, if arguably not modern. It also probably isn't the ideal tool for teaching today's school kids. But what it shows is that complete, working, usable operating systems – not single-trick ponies – can be built, essentially single-handed, and can be understandable by ordinary mortals.

Software like that is what will revolutionise teaching for the next generation or two. Computers so cheap they can be given away free with a six-quid magazine are wonderful, but alone, they're not enough. ®


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