By Sean McManus
I’ve been invited to blog about the Raspberry Pi computer as an emerging technology, but in some ways the term doesn’t really fit. The term “emerging” sounds to me like a rabbit tentatively sticking its nose out of its burrow. That’s not the Pi at all. Since its release in March 2012, the Raspberry Pi has sprinted out of factories and scattered all over the world.
There are now 1.75 million of them in the wild, with another 3,000 being bought every day. That might not seem like much compared to, say, the 100 million sales of the iPad since 2010, but the Raspberry Pi isn’t a mass market device. It’s unashamedly for geeks and aspiring geeks. You can unbox an iPad and get it working in minutes. You’ll have to set up a Raspberry Pi.
For that reason, a lot of people find the Raspberry Pi intimidating: it comes as a single green circuit board, and you have to connect your own keyboard, mouse and monitor to it. It uses an SD card for storage rather than a hard disk, although its support for USB means you can connect other storage devices to it easily. You don’t need any real technical skills to set up a Raspberry Pi, but I had a couple of friends who bought one and didn’t know where to start with it, so it sat there unused until they could work it out. That’s one reason I was keen to write Raspberry Pi For Dummies, to make it easy for people to get started and explore what the Raspberry Pi can do.
And what can it do? In terms of performance, it’s similar to a PC of the nineties, but with better graphics. Its HD video support means many people use it as a media centre, and you can use it for office applications or photo editing.
It’s at its best, though, when it’s being used for creative computer science. The Raspberry Pi is easy to program, and easy to tinker with. The recommended software includes Scratch (a visual programming language that’s widely used in schools), and Python, an industrial quality programming language that is relatively easy for beginners. You can connect up your own circuits to the Pi, so it’s great for hobbyists who want to build robots, weather stations or other projects. It’s also cheap (around $35), so you can experiment more freely than you can with an expensive PC. If you fry it, you can buy another, even if it means saving up your pocket money.
In many ways, the Raspberry Pi represents a return to the golden era of home computing. When computers first became domesticated about thirty years ago, you had to program them to use them. A whole generation grew up knowing (at least) how to make a program that writes their name on the screen. Over time, computers have become much easier to use, which is great for inclusivity, but also means we’ve lost some skills along the way. We use spreadsheets instead of writing programs, and we can download apps that do just about anything we can imagine. Desktop computers don’t come with the tools needed to program them, and many tablets and phones are locked down to stop you from installing software from unofficial channels. As a result, most people have become passive consumers of digital media, rather than creators of it.
The education system in many countries perpetuated this situation for a long time. Schools have been training students to work in offices, rather than empowering them to use the full capabilities of their computers. The Raspberry Pi originally came about because Eben Upton noticed that students were leaving school without a good understanding of computers. He was working on admissions for the computer science degree at the University of Cambridge at the time. The hope is that the Raspberry Pi can help young people to discover the joy of programming: the satisfaction of inventing new software that works, sprinkled with little “aha!” moments of discovery along the way. I recommend anyone of any age who’s curious about technology to get their hands on a Pi and learn to program: it’s one of the most approachable ways to start.
Some people will benefit from new job opportunities as a result of learning to program or will be able to launch their own technology start-ups. But the Raspberry Pi’s greatest achievement is the way it’s slowly changing society, one person at a time, from consumers into creators. Those who discover programming through the Raspberry Pi acquire new thinking skills, and new ways to express themselves digitally. They don’t have to work around the limitations of other people’s software, because they can make their own. They understand more of the world around them, where we’re surrounded by boxes of wires and circuits, and they can build their own inventions, controlled by the Raspberry Pi.
There are lots of reasons to get a Raspberry Pi but my favourite one is that making things is fun. It’s a powerful blank canvas, and once you know how to use it, the only limitation is your imagination.
Sean McManus is the coauthor of the bestselling Raspberry Pi For Dummies and author of Scratch Programming in Easy Steps. Visit his website at www.sean.co.uk for free sample chapters and other fun Raspberry Pi resources.