In previous blog entries, we've talked about the falling number of students enrolling in computer science programs and the impact this has on the availability of new programmers. Today we attended a lunchtime lecture by Professor Chris Tyler at Toronto's Seneca College. Tyler is a man who is part of a movement that aims to change this situation. The lecture was part of the Toronto User Group's annual TEC event and a huge "thank you" to the user group for bringing such a timely subject to the community.
Tyler's lecture began with a discussion on the findings of a group from Cambridge University in the U.K. as to the causes of this drop in interest, which is pretty much worldwide. In essence the findings were that while today's students are very tech savvy, it is purely from a user standpoint. They have little or no idea what is "under the hood" and perhaps more to the point, are usually actively discouraged from playing around with the home PC because Mum and Dad need it for their banking, shopping. Facebook, email, etc. That's a very different situation from what those of us who had (say) a Commodore 64. When you powered up a C64 the first thing you saw was the word "Ready" and you were in the Basic interpreter and being actively encouraged to program away. Not only that but for the hardware minded, the machine came with a complete schematic of the entire circuit board, had exposed edge connectors that a simple kit from Radio Shack could plug into, etc. This is very different from today's almost hermetically sealed home PCs.
The Cambridge group's response was to come up with a bare-bones computer that was designed for:
- Ultra low cost--$25 or $35 if you want the optional Ethernet and USB capabilities
- Encouraging experimentation by being open to hardware extensions and software programmability
- Using open-source software
The result was Raspberry Pi. A credit-card sized all-in-one computer system based on an ARM processor, which is the type of CPU that powers most of the smart mobile devices in the world. To find out more you can go to the Raspberry Pi Foundation's website.
So where does Tyler's group at Seneca fit into the picture? The group had been working for a while on an ARM processor version of the Fedora Linux distribution and offered it to the foundation as the base operating system for the Pi. The result of this collaboration is that the Pi will have an incredible range of free open-source software available for it right from the get-go. In fact Chris' team has managed to create a distribution that is 1.6 Gb in size and fits on an SD card (that's the type in your cell phone or camera if you're not sure what we mean). When the card is plugged into a slot on the Pi and the machine is powered up, it will automatically begin the configuration process, including setting the whole of the card, whatever its size, up effectively as the system's hard drive. A very clever idea. Change the SD card, change the OS!
Sometimes You Can Te Too Successful!
The foundation's initial plan was to produce 10,000 units. When they went on sale Feb. 29, the servers of the two vendors handling the sales were stalled by the sheer volume of people trying to order one. They took orders for 350,000 before closing the ordering system. If you want one, the best you can do is to "register your interest" and those expressing interest will be notified when a new batch of orders can be taken. Even when orders are opened up again, it's anticipated that not all the registered interested parties will actually be able to place an order. That's success on an unprecedented scale. To get on the list of interested parties, register with one of the two distributers here or here.
One of the other fascinating things about the project is that even at these incredibly low prices, everyone in the supply chain makes money and the foundation will be able to be self-funding.
Back in 2007 we blogged about another very low-priced computer targeted to the education of children--the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. We found out from Tyler that the latest incarnation of the hardware for the OLPC is also ARM-processor based and will be running the Seneca group's Fedora software in the future.
While Raspberry Pi and OLPC are both oriented to making inexpensive computers for purposes of education, the goals of the two programs are quite different. OLPC laptops are intended to be used "as is" to provide a wide range of educational materials on a wide variety of general topics at very low cost, whereas the primary goal of Raspberry Pi is to encourage kids to experiment with the computer itself, encouraging primarily IT innovation and education.
We're excited about the prospect of reawakening an interest in technology careers in kids. It looks like Raspberry Pi offers a good inexpensive vehicle to help us get there.
We're already on the waiting list.