Foundation Debuts $25 Computer Aimed At Sparking Creativity

It's been years since Nicholas Negroponte unveiled his plans to develop a $100 laptop that would be made available to anyone in the developing world. While Negroponte's price point remains out of reach, a new, independent UK organization has released a prototype of its own computer—a $25 USB key that packs a full machine into a form factor not much larger than a traditional thumb drive.

David Braben, of Rollercoaster Tycoon fame, developed the diminutive Raspberry Pi as a computer that all students could have access to, regardless of income. The system's specs are as follows:

  • 700 MHz ARM11
  • 128MB RAM
  • Supports OpenGL ES 2.0
  • 1080p30 H.264 decode
  • Composite/HDMI video output
  • USB 2.0
  • SD/MMC/SDIO Memory Card Slot
  • General Purpose I/O
  • Open software - Ubuntu, Iceweasel (OSS Firefox) KOffice, Python
Part of what makes the project so interesting is that unlike Negroponte's OLPC, the Raspberry Pi project isn't principally focused on children that have no other means of accessing a computer. The Raspberry Pi is meant to provide students with a creative learning platform for exploring aspects of computing that are no  longer traditionally taught in schools. The following quote refers to schooling in the UK, but much of it is relevant to the US as well.

The Raspberry Pi--USB connected at one end, HDMI at the other.
A lot of things have been obfuscated these days, in the sense that you can't get at them. There's so much between you and doing something interesting or creative that it gets in the way. "What they would do with it is they would be able to engage in a lot of things we're all consumers of but not creators of.

In my day we had a subject called typing and that, to me, is what ICT has replaced. It's a fine set of skills, I'm not meaning to belittle it. but the ability to write letters, use PowerPoint, use Excel, is one set of skills. I'm talking about a completely different set of skills that actually ICT has ousted from schools. In the early days... we had computer science coming into schools, they've been largely supplanted by things like ICT. The number of computer science applicants to
universities dropped in the early 200s by around 50 percent, which I think is a shocking indictment.
The popularity of computer science as a major hasn't fallen off in the US to the degree it has in Britain, but Braben's statements on how modern high school computer science courses essentially teach a basket of application skills as opposed to a fundamental understanding of programming is dead on. In the 80s, even beginner classes incorporated some discussion of programming, if only because no company had yet forged an OS and language paradigm that held sway over the entire consumer market.

Even after Windows established itself as the 500lb gorilla, a knowledge of tricks, tips, and workarounds was often necessary. We didn't call it plug-n-pray for no good reason—as recently as ten years ago, VIA's infamous 686b chipset bug made the lives of everyone who owned a Creative Labs sound card miserable until George Breese discovered a way to patch the chipset's PCI latency in software. Indeed, the author of this piece still has nightmares about his freshman year in college, when his alma mater's CS department dedicated itself to managing the hellish combination of Windows 95 and Novell Netware 3.

Would we go back? Not a chance—and yet, we learned from it. If the Raspberry Pi can capture the need for creativity and exploration without channeling the data-destroying bugs, hard locks, undocumented bugs, and the need to consult manuals written by sexually frustrated midgets who hate computers (aka, every DOS book ever written), than it might be something special.