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Cheap, tiny computer encourages coding for kids

A British group tells DW it will soon sell the credit card-sized Raspberry Pi computer for just $25. The project's head says the low-cost device is designed to help teach computer science to children.

circuit board

The Raspberry Pi will sell for $35 with an Ethernet port

On Friday, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the world's biggest tech convention, wrapped up in Las Vegas, in the western United States. One of the show's attendees was Eben Upton, the director of the new Raspberry Pi project, a charitable organization from the United Kingdom.

This week, the organization announced that it was beginning manufacture on what may be the world's smallest and cheapest desktop computer, priced between $25 (19 euros) and $35. The organizers of the project say that it is not designed specifically for the developing world, as are many other low-cost computers, such as the One Laptop Per Child project, or the new Aakash tablet from India, which was released late last year.

On its website, the group says "We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we're doing. We want to break the paradigm where, without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can't use the Internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children." Raspberry Pi added that the computers would be available for sale worldwide starting in late January 2012.

To learn more, Deutsche Welle contacted Eben Upton, the project's director.

Eben Upton is the director of Raspberry Pi

Eben Upton is the director of Raspberry Pi

Deutsche Welle: What exactly is the Raspberry Pi?

Eben Upton : The Raspbery Pi is a credit card-sized computer that we've developed with the specific aim of helping children to learn to program, very much in the way that children used to learn how to program in the 1980s with the Commodore 64 or the BBC Micro in the UK.

And you're going to sell this at an astonishingly low price point?

Yes, we're offering two models. The Model A, which has no networking, as some people don't require a network connection, and that will be $25. Then we have the Model B which will have an Ethernet connection, and an integrated USB hub and that's $35.

Is there WiFi on it?

There's no WiFi on it at the moment. I think we'd like to put some WiFi on it in the future. There are issues with the FCC, from an administrative point of view, it's much harder to sell a product with a radio in it. But in the future we'd like to do that, but to be honest it's hard enough to get a product like this through the approvals process.

boy with computer

The organization says it wants it easier for children to learn to learn computer science

So for $35, if someone bought the Model B, what would they receive and what would they need to make it function?

Ok, so you would receive just the main board of the computer. You'd put it down, put in a power supply. We've designed it to use a mobile phone power supply. There's now a European standard for mobile phone chargers, which uses the 5V micro-USB form factor. We expect more people have mobile phone chargers. If you don't have it, those are available on eBay for one or two euros. Then you plug a display into it. So you can plug an old-style standard definition television, or a modern HD TV, or a DVI monitor, you plug an Ethernet cable into the socket, and then a keyboard and mouse into the two USB ports.

Then the last thing you have to do is put in an SD card in there. The SD card provides us with our system storage. We obviously don't provide storage at that price point, so we use an SD card. We believe a lot of people have SD cards lying around in their digital cameras. You can download an operating system image from our website and burn it onto the SD card. Alternatively we will sell you a pre-formatted SD card for not very much money.

One Laptop Per Child

Raspberry Pi is seen as the British answer to One Laptop Per Child, launched in 2005

You said that these computers are targeted to teach kids to program - why is it so important to teach kids to program? And also, who specifically are you interested in teaching? Is it in the UK, Europe and the western world, or everywhere?

We believe quite strongly that there is a good rationale for teaching children to program in that it's required in the future economic well-being. There is a desperate need for more engineers. This project came out of several of us who work out of the missions at the University of Cambridge, and we observed that the number of people applying and the quality of people applying for computer science were falling off. The people we were getting were still intelligent, but they had done much less. People of my generation would have done a lot of programming by the time they came to university, now people have done much less, so the university has to spend a lot of time early on, bringing people up to the level that they would have previously assumed.

It's interesting that you say that it's designed to teach kids in the UK or Europe to program, when I would imagine that people that you're targeting, it seems that most of them would have access to PCs at their homes or schools or workplaces. Many might assume that it was initially designed to be a computer for the developing world.

We've looked around at the level of penetration of computers in the developed world. You find a significant number of families, less wealthy families, that don't have computers at all. You have a whole socio-economic group which has very, very low penetration with computers. You have then a bulk of the middle class where you have a situation where you have a family computer, but it's this thing where the child isn't encouraged to mess around with it.

The analogy I like to use is that you wouldn't let the child take the family car apart, but you might let your child take his or her bike apart. So the intention here is to provide something that is cheap enough that you can give it to your child, and your child has complete license to do whatever he or she wants to do with it. And even if there is another PC in the house, the point is that this device, is that this is a device that belongs to the child, and that the child can break if necessary. It's quite hard to break. But he or she can break it with little consequence, because it's replaceable and it's not the family PC. It doesn't wipe out the family's ability to word process or to access the Internet if the child happens to do something regrettable to the device.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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