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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Pi in the sky

I have been following with interest the progress of the Raspberry Pi.  For benefit of those who have followed the hype, the Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The foundation plans to release two versions, priced at US$25 and $35. It is intended to stimulate the teaching of basic computer science in schools.

It is a very cool device and its creators are obviously well intentioned, I doubt that it will encourage anything significantly educational. The "device" is not a complete computer.  At the moment it is just a single board computer laid out on a PCB with all the right device connections but no case and no connections.  OK, so you don't really need a case for a bare bones computer, but you probably need a screen - count $50 for that, plus a keyboard ($10-15)  and a mouse ($5-10), power supply ($10), a video cable ($5) and at least one SD card to boot from ($5), so right now this $110 computer with less computing power than a Pentium 4 (but probably the same amount of memory-256Mb) is going set our aspiring student at least $115. For much less than that the same student could probably pick up a not very worn out second hand PC with higher specs.

Well not quite higher specs because the Raspberry Pi has a very high end GPU for a device that is basically mobile phone technology with the phoney bits thrown away, but our aspiring computer scientist doesn't really need that to printf("Hello world!")

Rather than try to wrestle with Linux, gcc, X11 and all manner of baffling complications, if young kids really want to learn to program they will get an old PC, a copy (probably free) of some ancient C or C++ compiler or maybe some newer variant such as Java or Python, and prove to themselves that they can write programs that show 3+4 really does equal 7.

So who was really up at 6 o'clock in the morning yesterday trying to buy the 10,000 that went on sale, bringing down the websites of RS and Farnell?  Not schoolkids, who don't have credit cards. This Raspberry Pi thing is going to be bought up by people who can afford to buy a more expensive computer and probably already own one. It is useful to people who are looking for low power consumption PC's or nifty toys. Will it turn poverty stricken countries in to educational proving grounds for teams of developers? No.

Will it work for schools, when the average IT teacher knows and cares about little more than Power[point and Excel?  No, because the quality of support will so abysmally poor and the Raspberry Pi Foundation which claims to be a charity (they are registered) seems to think that all the support will come from the geek user community.  In practice current policy in schools is that PC's are shipped in in boxes by box-shifting companies, who may give little user advice, but they know how to get the boxes up and running?  Will there be any similar support from the R-Pi "user community"? Dream on.

Worse than that the Raspberry Pi Foundation to think the fact that they don't intend to trade at a profit means they can avoid any commercial responsibility for their product.  You can tell that from their behaviour when the board was "launched" yesterday.  It seems that at 6am hundreds of thousands of hobbyist geeks were lined up with their credit cards, ready to respond to months of BBC hype, only to find that the distributor's websites were either jammed or not actually sellin the products yet, but taking pre-order to be fulfilled later.  And what did the R-Pi group do?  The shutdown their servers and responded to the likely hundreds of thousands of complaints by whining on Twitter that their customers didn't appreciate them.

Well probably not because although the R-Pi techies may have spent tens of thousands of man hours trying to decide where and how to glue all the various components onto a PCB, in the first few hours of selling their potential customers wasted hundreds of thousands of man hours pressing F5.

Meanwhile one of the founders of R-Pi, rather than sorting out the mess they had created (they could have had a more orderly procedure if they actually honoured the pre-registration procedure that they had been running for weeks before), was actually out media whoring with the BBC and anyone else who would listen, ramping up demand for a product when demand was already way higher than they could fulfill.  So much for customer service.

"It has been six years in the making; the number of things that had to go right for this to happen is enormous. I couldn't be more pleased," Eben Upton, of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, told the BBC. He said that the organisation had been overwhelmed by the interest in the tiny computer, and urged customers who had missed out to pre-order now to ensure they get hold of one. Demand for the device was so strong that the website of one of the main suppliers actually crashed. "We didn't realise how successful this was going to be," Mr Upton added. Obviously.

But the real issue is that for all the fuss, having a stripped down PC doesn't actually make computing power any more accessible.  There are plenty of old clapped out PC's that people are willing to give away and while they may not be able to keep up with the World of Warcraft,. they are perfectly capable of running whatever sort of programming environment a beginner may need.  And because they are cheap and easily repaired, they can be fixed.  I have lost count, but I think we have had 7 desktop machines in this house, three still here, and the others passed on to a good home when asked.  The world is full of PCs available for young hackers and it doesn't need another one to get young people programming.

In fact, you don't need much in the way of a computer at all.  I attended the same Cambridge College as the aforementioned Mr Upton, indeed it was the alma mater of Prof Maurice Wilkes who built one of the fiurst electronic computers.  What did we use for programming?  An IBM 370/165, one of the biggest and fastest computers of the time with a 80 nano second clock cycle (call that a 12.5MHz machine) and a main memory of 3 megabytes later upgraded to 4 at great expense.

All that shared between about 150 users at a time and a generous weekly allowance of "CPU time" amounting to 30 seconds! yes 30 whole seconds a week for an undergraduate course at supposedly the top scientific university in the country, and some say in the world.  Or to put it another way, about the same amount of computing in a week that the Raspberry-Pi could achieve in half a second.

But that was not the problem with the course.  The main issue was that keen as the world was to have new computer scientists, and as keen as the university was to provide them, there were no tutors available who knew the evolving syllabus.  I was offered a choice of tutors, one who was nominally responsible for the computer in the engineering department but knew nothing about computers beyond that, and another, a mathematician and a very nice man who worked in the Computer Department, spent many years developing and supporting the line editor used on the university mainframe, but knew nothing about the subjects that we were taught.

And that is the same problem we have today.  We can supply schools with the whizziest and cheapest hardware, load them up with all the open source software they are going to need, but if you don't have teachers with the right expertise, then the whole exercise will grind to a halt.


Ed P said...

Perhaps of interest: Raspberry Pi were unable to fulfill their original aim of manufacturing in the UK, due to our absurd & anti-business import taxation rules. If they had purchased the component parts and brought them into the UK for assembly, they would have had to pay import duties on them. But having the entire unit made off-shore avoided these duties. Just one small example of how our confused government is failing to encourage UK businesses!

Alex said...

The import duties are marginal and are much less than the extra shipping charges. The main reason was because no UK manufacturer could compete on timing for such a small order.

Demetrius said...

Once upon a time I recall one David Blunkett talking about any computer ownership or use having to be licencsed and run by local authorities under the control of a council sub committee. Also, he believed that schools should not touch computers, this was a matter for post 16 and graduate education. It could have been worse.

Ed P said...

I took the duty information from Raspberry Pi's website. Were they "being economical with the truth"?

Alex said...

"Were they being slightly economical with the truth?"

Slightly, but to be fair the truth is a big story when you are selling these beasties world wide. The position when the assembled units are being sold to the Hong Kong or the Philippines will be very different from sales in the UK or EU or US.