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Raspberry Pi Launch Aims to Herald New Era of Education in Computing

The device is itself is a fully fledged computer the size of a credit card

Today is the official launch of the Raspberry Pi, an ambitious UK project to create low cost computing with the aim of bringing a proper understanding of computing back to education.  The device is itself is a fully fledged computer the size of a credit card with external USB and HDMI connectors.  What’s remarkable about Raspberry Pi is the price; there are two versions, Model A and Model B (echoing the BBC Micro options from 30 years before), selling at a target price of $25 and $35 respectively.  The extra $10 for the model B gets you a fixed Ethernet connection and an additional USB port.

The launch of what could be a milestone in computing has been made with usual British aplomb and understatement; the static website that replaces the previous one at www.raspberrypi.org talks about how the staff monitoring their Twitter account will be in the pub from 6pm onwards – it’s hardly an Apple product launch.

However despite all of this, the Raspberry Pi offers us another angle into what could be an exciting future in distributed and parallel computing.  This device can be purchased for such a low cost that linking hundreds of them together could be done for the cost of a mid-range server.  There’s the possibility to use them as desktop replacements, fuelling VDI deployments by reducing the individual seat cost.

Raspberry Pi Schematic

However we shouldn’t forget the original idea behind this project and that’s to improve the computing skill levels in our schools.  Computing today (especially in the UK) is essentially learning how to use office products such as Excel and Word, with little to no teaching or understanding of the fundamentals of computing itself.  Whilst learning how to use a computer is essential for the future, I imagine the percentage of children without access to one at home, the library or in other places is quite small, so the return we see on ICT lessons can’t be great.  But for anyone looking to follow a path into computing, we’ve returned to the ‘teach yourself’ world of 30 years ago, when there were no Computing classes in schools at all.  Hopefully the Raspberry Pi will excite a new generation of children into writing software much as it did for me in my teenage years.

So what do you get for the price of a couple of pizzas?  The unit is based around the Broadcom BCM2835 “computer on a chip” processor, which comprises an ARM core and advanced graphics functionality; the sort of thing you might find in a mobile phone or embedded device.  The graphics component is a key feature. which could make Raspberry Pi suitable for low cost home multimedia devices and definitely makes it VDI capable.  In addition, there’s 256MB of memory, an SD card socket (for the operating system, which is Fedora) an HDMI socket, USB socket a 3.5mm audio socket, all powered from using microUSB.  Looking at the design, it would be easy to be critical of the basic look of the device compared to say, the latest Apple iPhone or iPad styling (both internal and external), however this is a generation 1 device at an unbeatable price point.

I’m hoping to be able to buy and evaluate the Raspberry Pi in the coming weeks, however demand appears to have been so high that the two suppliers’ websites (RS Components and Farnell) have been down for most of the morning, with rumours that all their stocks sold out in the first 30 minutes.  With such a demand, we are bound to see lots of innovative ideas surfacing and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

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