As British as Raspberry Pi?
Published 15:56, 09 May 11
There's been a lot of chatter about Apple possibly switching to ARM chips for its laptops and even its desktops. Whether or not that is true, it's certainly the case that the ARM architecture is a major success, as a glance at the huge list of major manufacturers employing it for their products confirms: as well many Android phones, the Apple iPhone and iPod touch are to be found there.
What many people forget is that ARM is a rare example of world-beating British technology, with rather deep and splendid roots:
After achieving some success with the BBC Micro computer, Acorn Computers Ltd considered how to move on from the relatively simple MOS Technology 6502 processor to address business markets like the one that would soon be dominated by the IBM PC, launched in 1981. The Acorn Business Computer (ABC) plan required a number of second processors to be made to work with the BBC Micro platform, but processors such as the Motorola 68000 and National Semiconductor 32016 were unsuitable, and the 6502 was not powerful enough for a graphics based user interface.
Acorn would need a new architecture, having tested all of the available processors and found them wanting. Acorn then seriously considered designing its own processor, and their engineers came across papers on the Berkeley RISC project. They felt it showed that if a class of graduate students could create a competitive 32-bit processor, then Acorn would have no problem. A trip to the Western Design Center in Phoenix, where the 6502 was being updated by what was effectively a single-person company, showed Acorn engineers Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson that they did not need massive resources and state-of-the-art R&D facilities.
Wilson set about developing the instruction set, writing a simulation of the processor in BBC Basic that ran on a BBC Micro with a second 6502 processor. It convinced the Acorn engineers that they were on the right track. Before they could go any further, however, they would need more resources. It was time for Wilson to approach Acorn's CEO, Hermann Hauser, and explain what was afoot. Once the go-ahead had been given, a small team was put together to implement Wilson's model in hardware.
What's striking here is that ARM is closely linked to yet another great British computing icon - the BBC Micro, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It seems incredible that the BBC could not only commission a completely new computer system, but also turn it into one of the most popular machines on the market when it was up against machines like the Sinclair ZX81 and Commodore 64 (hard to imagine the BBC doing anything quite so trailblazing these days, alas....)
Of course, the BBC Micro was just part of a larger and amazingly vibrant British micro industry. As a fledgling journalist around this time, I remember well the “Great British Micro” supplement that we used to put out on Practical Computing magazine (at the time under the editorship of Jack Schofield) every year. We could do this because there were literally dozens of British micros available, including amazing machines like the Jupiter Ace, which ran Forth instead Basic as its main language.
But the BBC Micro towered over all of these for one simple reason: it became the foundation for teaching computing in schools across the nation. Indeed, I don't think it's any coincidence that many of the first wave of hackers in the UK grew up on the BBC Micro, and learned real programming by exploring its possibilities.
Contrast that with the pathetic situation in British schools today. No longer is “computing” taught, but this strange, anonymous “ICT”. In truth, it consists of little more than learning where to find the Print option on the File menu of Microsoft Word and Excel; it has little to do with real computing, but is more about training obedient office workers. No wonder that students generally hate ICT. No wonder either that so few people are fired up to become real computer programmers later in life.
Imagine, now, if we were able to return to that prelapsarian state of digital delight, giving young minds exciting hardware and software to play with such that they not only truly learn instead of regurgitating dull facts, but that more of them go on to use and build on that real expertise in their careers.
It's never going to happen, you will probably say. After all, the PC architecture is irremediably wedded to the Microsoft monoculture, as years of failed attempts to get GNU/Linux on the desktop have shown. There is simply no hope of displacing the Words and the Excels with something more stimulating.
That means that this is not a question of replacing the current IT investment - a forlorn hope - but of supplementing it with something quite different - and better. But again, you will say, there is no money for additional expenditure, so how could such systems be paid for?
Well, maybe the answer is this:
The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a UK registered charity (Registration Number 1129409) which exists to promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing.
We plan to develop, manufacture and distribute an ultra-low-cost computer, for use in teaching computer programming to children. We expect this computer to have many other applications both in the developed and the developing world.
Our first product is about the size of a USB key, and is designed to plug into a TV or be combined with a touch screen for a low cost tablet. The expected price is $25 for a fully-configured system.
How would you use an ultra-low-cost computer? Do you have open-source educational software we can use? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
128MB of SDRAM
OpenGL ES 2.0
1080p30 H.264 high-profile decode
Composite and HDMI video output
SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot
Open software (Ubuntu, Iceweasel, KOffice, Python)
That cost of $25 for a system means that even in these cash-strapped times, tens of thousands of these could be bought and distributed by the UK government to schools (and with such volumes prices might come down a bit too.) In fact, the government could even save money by replacing broken PCs with a dozen of these tiny devices. It's also low enough for many parents to buy one for the family alongside existing technology.
Of course, there's the issue of support, but I think there are no less than three places this will come from. First, current ICT teachers may well see this new system as liberating, allowing them to do all the interesting things they were never allowed to do with locked-down Windows systems. The great thing is it's no longer either/or - either safe, traditional Windows, or wacky, daring free software: at these prices, you have have both.
Secondly, there is the huge and knowledgeable open source community. I often hear of people working with free software who are unable to help their local school because of the a blinkered view of what exactly constitutes valid educational computing activities. Again, they would be able to work alongside teachers providing the obligatory ICT stuff, and so would not ruffle any hierarchical feathers.
And last - but certainly not least - there are the pupils themselves. A wonderfully rich ecosystem grew up around the BBC Micro, with users becoming an incredible resource for helping others with their computing problems. And this was well before anything like Facebook existed to facilitate such interactions among school friends and more distant acquaintances. Nowadays, such an community would spring up practically overnight.
So support is actually the least of the problems with this idea - as free software has in fact been quietly teaching us for two decades.
What's particularly exciting about the Raspberry Pi project is that it has the potential to solve two big problems at once. Through its use of open technologies, it would make computing in schools fun again - a win in itself - and encourage students to learn by exploring, with possible positive knock-on consequences for education in general. And in time, it would also produce a new generation of experienced and enthusiastic coders, with concomitant benefits for not just the British software industry, but British business in general.
So, as a potential BBC Micro 2.0, how could the UK government not support it....?