David Braben's Raspberry Pi: Could This Miniature Computer be the Next Big Thing?

David Braben, the programmer famous for the classic Elite and Elite II: Frontier games, is heading up a charitable foundation that aims to provide a £15 Linux PC the size of a memory stick, whilst providing today's schoolchildren with access to the sort of flexible computing experience that was more common in the past.

The Raspberry Pi is (according to the provisional specification) based on the ARM11 700Mhz processor. It's to be loaded with 128MB of memory, a USB2.0 connector and a composite/HDMI video output. This means it can use a TV as a display, while the USB connector allows cheap and standard accessories to be plugged in, including mice and keyboards (and much more). It will also have a SD/MMC/SDIO memory slot and a 'general purpose' interface. The operating system will be Ubuntu, and software will include Iceweasel (a re-branded version of the popular Firefox web browser), Koffice (similar to Microsoft Office) and the Python programming language. Braben says he hopes the Raspberry will be ready within the next 12 months.

128MB might sound like a very small amount of memory for a modern operating system, so after reading about Raspberry Pi I tried installing the latest version of Debian Linux (Ubuntu is based on Debian) on an old 128MB machine*. After removing some of the unneeded software components, it was actually perfectly usable, if a bit slow at times. These are only the provisional specifications, though, and I expect Raspberry Pi will strip down the software down more carefully than I did. Also, I was using KDE4 as my desktop manager (which is roughly equivalent to Vista/Windows 7 in terms of fancy graphics and polish), whilst Ubuntu's default desktop environment is probably a little lighter on the processor and memory.

If the Raspberry Pi Foundation can really produce a computer at the proposed spec levels and price point, then it could be an important project. In addition to the educational benefits, the machine could be put to a variety of other uses.

In his Learning Without Frontiers talk, Mr Braben speaks of giving one of these computers to every school child of a certain age every year. As a Linux PC, it could open up programming to a whole new generation of students. His speech harks back to the good old days of 8-bit computing, where even if you just wanted to play a computer game on the ZX Spectrum, you still had to type the command to do it (it was LOAD "", if I remember rightly, and the LOAD command was a keyword on the 'J' key).

Back in those days, computers came with thick manuals that taught the programming language that was built into the machine, which was usually a language called BASIC. With most computer operating systems these days, programming languages tend not be very accessible and there's not much incentive to use them.

The project appears to have certain similarities with the BBC Micro, which was also developed in Cambridge. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, later went on to spawn the ARM company, which is supplying the processor for the RPi. The BBC Micro (and its successor, the Archimedes), were capable machines but perhaps slightly over-specified for the home market. Their higher price compared to the Spectrum and Commodore 64 (and later, the Amiga and Atari ST) was probably their downfall.

4 Print "Links"

The Raspberry Pi Foundation website

BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones' report on the Raspberry Pi, includes video footage of the prototype.

David Braben's Learning Without Frontiers talk on Raspberry Pi

"David Braben - an Elite Gamer" - BBC, March 2011.

* Correction, 31.10.11: The machine used for testing was actually equipped with 256Mb RAM, of which about 190Mb was available to the system (the rest being reserved for the graphics card). See this article for further testing and more information about the Raspberry Pi.