Raspberry Pi brings £22 computer to the masses

A new computer was launched this week and sold out immediately. It wasn’t created by Apple.  In fact, it wasn’t created by any business, but by a charitable foundation.  Its goal?  To make computer science accessible once more to everyone, especially young people.

The device is called Raspberry Pi, and it’s designed to be as easy to meddle with as possible.  There’s no casing on the device, so you can see all its components, and it uses open source software that you can experiment with, and has support for the programming languages Python, C, Perl and BBC Basic. BBC Basic is the real odd one out there, as a language that is rarely used commercially any more, and it’s a clue that the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been at least partly inspired by the BBC Micro of the 80s, which many of us used in schools to write our first programs.  The Raspberry Pi even comes in two models, named Model A and Model B, after the BBC.

The Raspberry Pi is about the size of a credit card, and you’ll need to add your own keyboard, mouse and monitor. For storage, it uses an SD card, similar to those found in digital cameras.  The Model B which went on sale this week has two USB ports and an Ethernet port, and the Model A which has not yet been released will have just the one USB port and no networking capability.  The operating system is Linux, which is essential for both its openness and the fact it’s free. Having a commercial operating system like Windows would have made it impossible to keep costs as low as they have.

The price of the device is just £22, which might be one reason it sold out so quickly.  It shows that programming does not need to be elitist, and invites everyone to try it.  It also cuts the risk of experimentation.   If somebody breaks a Raspberry Pi, they’re not hard to replace, even if they look a little bit vulnerable for use in the school environment.  I wonder whether computer science classes will begin at school with students making cases for their Raspberry Pis, in the way that many of my classes started by covering our exercise books?

If you’d like to get hold of one, you might have to wait a few weeks.  The Raspberry Pi Foundation is licensing its design so that it doesn’t have to bear the full cost and responsibility for manufacturing every unit.  That’s a smart move that will enable it to grow distribution rapidly, but there’s going to be a delay before any more units are available to buy.  For now, your best bet is to keep an eye on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website.

Sean McManus