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Hacker helper: These credit card-sized gadgets are fully fledged computers intended to excite high school kids about learning to program.

You can get a lot for $35 these days. It bought me what looks like a credit card-sized James Bond gadget prototype, but is actually a fully functional computer. It has an ARM processor like those in many cell phones, 256 megabytes of RAM, a wired network connection, two USB ports, an HDMI video connection, and a graphics coprocessor able to decode a Blu-ray DVD. It’s powered by a cell-phone charger and is intended to revolutionize technology education by helping to create a new generation of hackers and makers (see “An Ultracheap Computer”).

You’ll need to scavenge around your house for some extra parts to do more than just marvel at the Raspberry Pi’s compact design. Find an old USB keyboard, a mouse, and a screen (most old TVs or computer monitors should be suitable) and plug them into the computer’s sockets. Grab a four-gigabyte SD card and flash it with the free Linux-based operating system on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s website. Put the SD card into the slot, apply power, and you’ve got a 700 megahertz Unix workstation with hardware accelerated 3-D graphics—something that would have been state-of-the-art in 2001 and set you back several thousand dollars.

Of course, it’s no longer 2001. Computers are now utilities essential for communicating, entertainment, and accessing all kinds of business and government services. But in the process of becoming so crucial, computers have become increasingly locked-down (see “The Personal Computer is Dead”). It’s not impossible to tinker with the guts of a computer running Windows or Mac OS, but it’s tricky and getting trickier with every new release. It’s also risky if you depend on the machine to do your homework. And few kids have the courage to seriously mess with Dad’s computer. Mine didn’t, even after I told them to go ahead.

The Raspberry Pi offers another path—encouraging experimentation by lowering the cost of accidentally breaking when you’re trying to be making. The computer was conceived of by Eben Upton, formerly a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, U.K., who created the Raspberry Pi Foundation to make it a real product. Upton is also a veteran of several years at chip maker Broadcom, designing the kind of chips that make it possible to sell a complete computer for $35.

Upton’s machine is aimed at giving high schoolers an onramp to a life or career of playing with computers. Kids that age in the 1980s had Commodore 64s and TRS-80s, early PCs that dumped you straight into a programming prompt for the BASIC language when turned on. They came with manuals to teach you how to program. But in the 1990s, kids started getting game consoles that couldn’t be programmed and PCs started coming with Microsoft Windows and without how-to books.

Matters have gotten worse as smartphones and tablets have become popular, particularly at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. PCs are now cheap and getting cheaper, but poor teens and their caregivers are turning to cell phones instead. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Internet project, 30 percent of teenagers in households with incomes less than $30,000 don’t have computers in their homes. But they do have TVs, especially old analog TVs, and USB keyboards are cheap. The Raspberry Pi cuts the financial barrier to entry to about a tenth of the cost of a new PC.

I bought my own a few weeks ago and gave it to my twin 11-year-old boys. I didn’t know what to expect. I had utterly failed to interest my 16-year-old daughter in programming. My sons were vaguely interested when I showed them programs like Squeak or “robotics camp” intended to get kids interested in technology, but they always lost interest after a few days. They wanted to play video games, not write them.

Strangely, something about this tiny machine that they could hold in their hands caught the attention of my twin boys in a way that all the Macs and PCs in our house never did. It’s not intimidating. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not a $1,000 machine mostly used to read adult e-mail. The computer’s small size, exposed circuit board, and even slow speed seemed precisely designed to encourage a feeling of ownership and control—even though they were the result of engineering decisions designed to cut every possible cost.

Yes, the Raspberry Pi is slow—but only at some things. The Web browser bundled with its Linux distribution does seem to crawl on most websites, but sixth graders don’t read all that fast. What’s included with the Raspberry Pi—a bunch of games, MIT Media Lab’s “Scratch” programming language for kids, and a developing environment for the Python programming language—all run fast enough.

The main problem that my kids had was that the current version of the Raspberry Pi’s operating system didn’t work flawlessly right away, and needed some tweaking to support some keyboard layouts, wireless cards, and sound hardware. Those problems may not deter most of the several hundred thousand people that have already bought a Raspberry Pi. Upton says the majority are “adult geeks” using it for home-brew robotics, media players, or high-altitude balloons. But the drawbacks are enough to seriously deter kids that just want to tinker, supposedly the computer’s true audience.

Upton wrote in an e-mail that the current system is not suitable for anyone “who isn’t prepared to Google their problem and follow the reasonably clear instructions from wiki, and/or ask questions on our forum.”

I fear that challenge may be enough to push many kids back to Angry Birds on their smartphones. Fortunately, most of the problems my children encountered should be soon fixed in an upcoming software upgrade. “We want to make sure that everyone who has an aptitude for programming gets a chance to develop it,” says Upton, and thanks to his creation, many more people should get that chance. For those kids willing to take the plunge, this computer is magical.

 

Simson L. Garfinkel, who works in computer forensics, is a contributing editor at Technology Review.

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Credit: Flickr Creative Commons | Peet Sneekes

Tagged: Computing, Eben Upton

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