David Braben on Raspberry Pi
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The Raspberry Pi Foundation's "ultra-low-cost" computer is the size of a credit card and will cost $25-$35, depending on how much RAM you specify. Frontier Developments' head David Braben is heading up the foundation and its drive to capture the imaginations of a generation not raised on the simple pleasures of the BBC Micro. We sat down with Braben to discuss the hardware, and why it's needed.
What's Raspberry Pi trying to rekindle?
There was a real enthusiasm for electronic devices when I was a kid. It wasn’t that it was geeky – it was actually quite trendy for a short period of time. But that’s not the point. The thing is that when the focus is on the device itself, that’s one thing, but what you can do with the device is a lot more interesting. [In Raspberry Pi] you’ve got quite a powerful, very cheap device that anyone can carry around, take to school, and hopefully do interesting things with that make it seem less like it's purely a school thing.
We do realise that it’s only going to be a subset of people that will even get engaged with it, but it’s filling a gap where there isn’t actually a place for people to get engaged at the moment. There’s a huge gulf right now between [making UGC in] Halo Forge, Rollercoaster Tycoon or LittleBigPlanet, and things at the top end like XNA where you’ve got to know your bananas to get engaged in it. For me the BBC Micro crossed that gap. Actually, the bottom bit didn’t even exist back then, but it shows that there is a will to learn ‘programming Lego’.
At the moment, on a normal machine you’ve got to know quite a lot to be able to boot Linux, fire up a compiler and get anything to compile. Just to say your own name on the screen is a challenge. Whereas on the BBC, you’d see in every shop that someone had typed, ‘So-and-so is clever,’ or ‘So-and-so smells'. Line 20, Goto 10: that almost entered the vocabulary, it’s so straightforward. It's understandable even to someone who hasn’t done programming. It would be great if you could take that and wrap it in something where it’s easy to create something – websites, for instance – very easily. You can do it to an extent with things like Java, but it’s much harder to get into, and in terms of teaching it’s much harder as well.
Frontier Developments' head David Braben and the alpha version of the Raspberry Pi hardware
So is it safe to assume there will be an analogue to BBC Basic on Raspberry Pi?
Well, we have BBC Basic. It’s not an analogue, it’s the BBC Basic. We’re just checking where we are with the rights to that. There may or may not be an issue with the magic three letters there. But the point is that BBC Basic was hand-optimized on machines that were hundreds and hundreds of times slower than this. So it’ll feel like the speed of Assembler, it’ll run like the wind. And I think that’s very exciting. A Java virtual machine is typically 80mb, often bigger still, which is ludicrous. Whereas my guess is that entirety of BBC Basic will fit easily in [Raspberry Pi's] primary cache. And that to me, in a perverse way, is very attractive. You could write something in Basic doing fancy graphics processing but where you could look at it and it’s really obvious what it’s doing. That’s great from a teaching point of view, and from a fun point of view.
The problem with the PC, when you start compiling programs, is that you find it isn’t quite the same from one PC to the next. And you’ll find you’ve got the wrong version of Windows, or the wrong graphics drivers. We have that every day writing PC software, and what we have is one version for every permutation on the disc. But if we can say with Raspberry Pi that it’s not the device we’re getting excited about but the things you can do with it, that can be a lot more inclusive. We can hopefully get a much better male to female ratio. Because what we’re doing can be quite simple, and that’s what I’d like to see from this.
Is the lack of a case a deliberate aesthetic choice?
Yes. It’s a practical thing as well, because this is a developer board – it’s not a consumer device. The plan is to do that next year. But yes, in a sense it’s embracing our roots as well. It’s not being ashamed of what we’re doing, and trying to make things look nice and antiseptic. Which we may do down the line, but that [would be aimed at] a different group of people. I suspect that a lot of Edge readers would go, ‘Oh, that’s cool. You can see exactly what’s on the board.’ The sort of people who do take the lid off their computer and see what’s inside. So I think there’s no shame in what’s there.
We’ve made it extremely public what is there. So if other people want to make it I’d actually challenge them to build it for the same price. Never mind retail it for the same price. I think that’s the point, at $25 – $35 we’ve managed to keep the price astonishingly low.
And it’s a small PC. There’s nothing really you can’t do with this that you couldn’t do with a PC from way back. We can run things like OpenOffice, Twitter, browse the web, Facebook etc
How about graphics performance?
I think it would be fair to say that it's quite a way beyond [Quake III Arena] in terms of what it can do. It will be able to do things that you'd consider a lot more contemporary, but these are the things available freely that we can show running easily. At the moment we're appealing to techy people because we want people to give their time for free, writing software and improving things, porting them from other places, and putting them into the public domain, essentially, so we can use them for education.
What are your plans for distribution?
There are things we haven't announced that are very exciting, but the intitial 10,000 will be distributed through the Raspberry Pi website. Initially it's the UK, but we already have them outside the country. [About 50 alpha boards out in the wild.] It's a very wide range of different people, from education to technology companies to well-meaning individuals who have great pieces of software it'd be good to have. It should be a global thing.