Posted on: 05 Jun 2012
Written by: chris
I’ve just taken delivery of my new computer – a £30 Raspberry Pi. Having owned lots of computers since my first one (a Sinclair Spectrum in 1982), this new toy is getting me excited again because it’s claimed to be something of a spiritual successor to my earliest machine. Not in terms of power; it’s several hundred times more powerful than Sinclair’s baby. Rather, I’m hoping it will represent a return to the values from those far-off days in which (some) users actually chose to write their own programs and, in a sense, take control of their computer.
All too often these days, it’s the computer that takes control of us. We’re reduced to mere users of software, being guided down paths determined for us by the hardware manufacturers and software publishers. For many of us, that’s exactly what we want, of course – but it’s frustrating for anyone who has ever felt that they don’t really understand what makes their computer (or, these days, any one of a variety of other intelligent devices) work the way it does, or has dreamed of ‘tweaking’ it to make it work in a slightly different way. But who among us, the most terminally geeky aside (yes, that was a pun), would actually dare to do it? After all, having spent hundreds or even thousands of pounds on all the necessary hardware and software, most users would rather gnaw off their own leg than fiddle around with the machine and risk rendering something crucial inoperative.
The Raspberry Pi, by contrast, has been intentionally designed to take users back to a world in which the computer wasn’t seen as a closed black box, but rather something that could be tinkered with, poked (another pun, this time old-skool 80s-style) and, heaven help you, occasionally destroyed by accident in the name of research. Write off a Pi, and it’ll cost you pocket money (OK, slight exaggeration) to buy a new one. It’s probably not too far wide of the mark to claim that the 80s was responsible for most of what’s good and inventive in the IT industry we have today, largely because of the spirit of enquiry encouraged by the cheap, simple computer designs back then.
Flash forward to 2012. Cheap the Raspberry Pi may be, but it’s hardly simple in comparison to its illustrious predecessors. Back in the 80s, if you really wanted to, you could buy (fairly slim) books containing complete code listings for the entire operating system of the Speccy and its contemporaries, which you could then – if so inclined – manipulate to your heart’s desire. Good luck finding anything similarly compact and accessible for the Raspberry Pi, which by default runs Linux – an “open” operating system, it’s true, and pretty compact as modern operating systems go, but positively gargantuan in comparison to its forbears of thirty years ago…
So far all I’ve done with my new Pi is to take it out of its box and gawp in awe at its svelte dimensions. Now I’m waiting for my SD memory card to be delivered so I can load up the appropriate operating system, plug the board into a bunch of scrounged peripherals from around the house and find out what she can do. Will it really be a trip down memory lane back to the 80s? Will I enjoy getting to grips with Linux again? And will I be able to drag my 8-year-old son away from Angry Birds for long enough to get him interested in the new machine’s possibilities?
Watch this space…