Why I Want My Pi
The launch of Raspberry Pi, a complete Linux-powered computer costing only £23, melted the servers at Farnell and RS Components this week. Who would have thought that a device like this could be so popular?
Published 17:27, 01 March 12
Today's open hardware movement is a renaissance of the spirit that first got me interested in technology as a teenager. I was fascinated by the assembly of electronic components into flashy, noisy gadgets and became an avid subscriber to publications with titles like "Electronics Today International". I built increasingly complex circuits, eventually gaining what would now be a GCSE in electronics and building what was then entirely novel, an ultrasonic "tape measure" (which I later repurposed into an alarm clock and remote control). Towards the end of my teens I even assembled my own computer, a Sinclair ZX80. I was inspired by all that to study electronic engineering at university.
That experience almost killed my enthusiasm. Instead of focussing on innovation and creativity, the course spent almost the whole time on abstract mathematics and physics. While I loved that stuff, it never reconnected with making things. That was when I discovered the delights of operating systems and systems programming. I found third-year courses in it and never looked back. There is nothing to beat the energising experience of actually making something.
Those heady days of electronic kits and Sinclair home-brew computers are long gone, and today most of our experience of technology is is sealed boxes controlled by the manufacturer. Warnings against tinkering have progressed beyond invalidating the warranty and today the world's big technology corporations would love to make all experimentation (outside their business model, anyway) a crime if they could - that's partly what's behind ACTA. Custom, undocumented connectors, patented interfaces and encrypted firmware join with un-openable boxes to force us all into the vendors' after-market, where they collect royalties from suppliers (assuming they even let others trade there).
There's always iFixIt to act as an antidote. Yet there's so much that is positive and empowering about understanding the fabric of one's world. It breeds the assumption that we, and not our suppliers, are in control. It rewards experimentation and innovation. It provides a platform on which to build technology solutions that focus on personal freedoms rather than surrendering them to corporate profits. In pursuit of this promise I was an early supporter (on Kickstarter) of the Freedom Box. I hope it will lead to a person-centric technology world of federated software, although it's still young at the moment.
I've also been fascinated by Raspberry Pi since playing with one at Transfer Summit last autumn. It looks so minimal, and yet has everything needed to run a (small but beautifully formed) desktop and display it on a TV. While we've had plenty of opportunities to tinker before now with technology like the Arduino, Raspberry Pi allows us to build solutions in software without having to tangle with soldering and FPGAs. It holds the possibility of sparking the interest of a new generation of hands-on encounters that will train the expectations of the people who will create tomorrow's technologies.
The enormous reaction to the launch of Raspberry Pi was entirely expected for those of us who had been watching it evolve. The only people who seem to have been surprised were the wholesalers that The Raspberry Pi Foundation have wisely licensed to distribute them, so they can stick to innovating. Personally, I can't wait to get one.