Computers and Pi, Oh My

19 Jan, 2012 | ComputersTdpTech

When I last wrote about the Raspberry Pi I assumed it was an idea that would probably never see the light of day, that it would encounter too many insurmountable hurdles or be forced to make too many compromises, or that it would succumb to market forces and the price would be forced too high. Not so it seems.

The Pi is a good idea. It won't revolutionise computer science in schools on its own, or overnight, but at least it will provide a cheap computer for those who want to tinker, and we used to be a nation of tinkerers, we're just moving from sheds to the bedroom. Interestingly, it seems to be compared to the BBC Micro, which spawned a lot of early computer adoption in the UK. What everyone fails to remember is that the Micro wasn't cheap.

The [BBC Micro] Model A and the Model B were initially priced at £235 and £335 respectively, but rising almost immediately to £299 and £399 due to increased costs.

Those prices equate to £900 or more in 2012 money, any child with that budget could buy a computer these days. Its success was probably the combination of the TV show, adoption in schools and the fact that it was simple to use yet flexible and powerful.  I supposed you could argue it was cheap by the standards of the day, when most computers ran to many thousands.

What I'm more interested in is how the Pi seems to be anticipated by those of us way too old to be considered their target market and why something like this hasn't been released before. The closest I've seen so far have been the so-called plug PCs (because they're built into a plug) which are generally less capable than the Pi (no display connector for a start). They also cost closer to £100.

What the Pi offers is something I've mooted for a while, the chance of ubiquitous computing power. How a charity has managed to pull together this sort of design at this price (they did get a special deal it seems), when the electronics giants haven't, makes you wonder. I'm sure many of those same companies are watching eagerly.

I wonder if, and hope, the Pi creates a great many things, with a device so capable at so low a cost, it could be incorporated into a vast number of devices to make them more than just the limited things we have, from heater controls, to alarm clocks, to home automation. The low power on the devices (it can run from 4 AA batteries and the beta models draw 2-4 watts) means always on computing becomes very affordable.  You only have to look at all the homebrew projects for devices like the NSLU2, Linksys routers and the various NAS devices around to see the potential.

To that end, while I still have some hope, Microsoft's adoption of the ARM platform could be promising, but they seem to be crippling it (get all apps working on it, Microsoft, otherwise you're wasting a massive advantage), if they release it as a separate product to install at all.  It's not essential to the success of the Pi, but I think it might help it bridge into the mainstream.

It'll be interesting to see if it has an impact on Linux and Python adoption for future projects.

While the Pi is designed to help kids get their hands on computers and have a play, I think the most interesting thing is how it will be used by the rest of the community and just what blossoms from it.  It's not just a computer, it's a platform.