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Writing Code Is as Easy as Raspberry Pi

A $25 credit-card-size PC is stirring imaginations across the globe.

A prediction for the future: Powerful computers that can run 1080p HD video or 3D games will cost as little as $25, be the size of a credit card and weigh less than an ounce-and-a-half. Any school kid has one, and hacking code or finding new ways to use it becomes a new leisure pursuit.

Ladies and gentlemen, the future has arrived, or will when the Raspberry Pi goes on sale in the United Kingdom later in January. And the incredibly inexpensive, tiny barebones PC is stirring the imaginations of hackers, case-modders, robotics fans and just general geeks worldwide.

The Raspberry Pi, a product of a nonprofit educational foundation by the same name, was developed by a serendipitous handful of hardware and software engineers with the unique experience and connections to make such a device possible.

The Raspberry Pi Model A repurposes a Broadcom system-on-a-chip ARM processor intended for phones or tablets, beefs up the graphics capability to the level of the original Xbox, and adds an SD card slot and ports for HDMI, RCA video, USB and audio on a credit-card-size circuit board. A pricier version, the Model B, doubles the Model A’s 128 MB of RAM and adds an Ethernet port and second USB port at $35.

The PC has been in development for less than a year, with the Raspberry Pi foundation showing an early prototype for the device last May, then envisioned as a PC on a USB dongle. The idea behind the computer dates back to 2006, when Cambridge University lecturer Eben Upton noticed that the computer skills of university applicants for computer science was dropping.

Where in the ’90s most of the applicants were at least hobbyist programmers, in the 2000s they most typically only had experience in web design. Upton and colleagues at Cambridge came to blame a number of factors, one of which was, ironically, the growing number of PCs in family homes.

Programming on a typical PC is far more complex than the Amigas, Commodores and other early computers and gaming consoles, and parents also did not encourage playing with code for fear it would damage the family computer. The longest program a coder could write on the earliest forms of BASIC was 27 lines long; by contrast, the latest version of Windows has some 50 million lines of code. And so kids were finding it difficult to try their hand at programming.

Raspberry Pi computers are meant to remedy that, and the ultimate goal is to get them into the hands of any middle-school or high-school student in Britain who wants one. The plan is to manufacture about 100,000 of them this year, with early models going to developers to encourage innovative programs and uses that will further stir the imagination of young programmers.

That isn’t to say others aren’t fascinated by Raspberry Pi and don’t want to get their hands on one. The whole idea harkens to the early days of computing when hobbyists formed clubs to share ideas and show off their creations. The idea of charging money for a program then was antithetical to these purists.

The fact that Raspberry Pi computers don’t even have a case, and that an optional accessory board might require some basic soldering, only adds to their appeal. The first 10 pre-production development models were put on sale on eBay Jan. 1 and bids as of this writing are over $2,700.

When the production computers do go on sale in a few weeks, orders will be taken through the foundation’s website. The foundation first will aim at hobbyists, casual developers and home users, hoping to beef up the Raspberry Pi’s software, documentation and support through independent forums to make it easier for student adoption later.

The computers can run three flavors of the open-source Linux operating system that have been modified to run on ARM processors: Debian, Fedora and ArchLinux. They will require an SD card for storage and a USB keyboard and mouse to connect to, with a an external USB hub likely needed to provide enough hookups. Wireless networking can be provided with a USB wireless adapter.

The HDMI or RCA video ports can be used to plug the computer directly into a TV, or also can be used with a computer monitor that supports DVI input or VGA with a DVI-to-VGA adapter. The 5 volts of power needed is provided through an increasingly standard micro-USB input, and could be provided by many cell-phone chargers or a four-AA battery pack.

The optional accessory board, named a Gert board after its developer, is expected to be available soon, as are cases in which to mount the computer.

Already there are hundreds of would-be developers discussing using a Raspberry Pi for everything from robots to turning older TVs into Smart TVs, for car entertainment systems, as a smart home energy monitor, to make an arcade-game box, a home digital video recorder, for home automation, as a sophisticated aquarium monitor, for homemade digital cameras and more. Case-modders are talking about mounting the circuit board in everything from a box made of Legos to an Altoids mints tin.

A world of geeky possibilities, all for the price of an Erector set.

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