Making a friendlier Raspberry Pi

 
Alex Klein

In an office deep in London's trendy Shoreditch, Alex Klein is engaged on a mission. He's assembled a small team - an Israeli, an Italian and a smattering of recent Cambridge maths graduates - to address an important task. They are trying to make the Raspberry Pi more user-friendly.

Mr Klein, a former journalist, had his epiphany while he was trying to set up the cheap educational computer for his seven-year-old cousin. "It was totally impenetrable," he says. "The Raspberry Pi for Dummies guide was 400 pages long. It's an incredible piece of tech, but it's something that needs to be unleashed for normal people."

Having tried and failed myself to get a young person interested in Raspberry Pi, I understood what he meant. The computer designed to be put in the hands of every child in Britain to teach them programming has been a huge hit - but mainly with middle-aged men nostalgic about their teenage years playing with a BBC Micro or a ZX Spectrum. Nothing wrong with that, but even the people behind the Pi accept that they need to do more to make it accessible for children - and for parents and teachers.

Raspberry Pi

So Klein and his colleagues have spent a year building Kano, a kit which he believes makes Raspberry Pi friendly rather than intimidating. "We think that everyone in the world, no matter how old you are or where you live, should be able to build a computer. It's powered by Raspberry Pi but has the simplicity of a Lego set. You make a computer, you learn code, you have fun."

The bare-bones piece of board now comes with a case, a colourful keyboard, cables - and most importantly an operating system designed by the Kano team to get users coding quickly. There's a simple manual - just a few pages rather than that huge For Dummies guide. Raspberry Pi was designed to be more difficult than the turn-it-on and play tablets and smartphones that are in the hands of today's children - but the Kano team aims to get users through the first intimidating barrier so that they can go on and do interesting and creative things with computers.

Kano is not a charity, but a business with big ambitions. Klein is lucky enough to have a relative who is one of the biggest names in London's venture capital community. Saul Klein of Index Ventures - father of that seven year old who wanted to build a computer - has helped fund this venture so far.

But now its wider appeal is going to be tested. Klein has turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to try to raise $100,000 (£62,000) to finance the first production run of the Kano kit. "Kickstarter is a huge revolution in finance, just as the Raspberry Pi is in computing," he told me. "It gives you the ability to answer to nobody but the people who enjoy your product."

Now we will find out how big that crowd is.

In Britain, and around the world, the idea that we need to teach children to code has taken root. Organisations like Codecademy, Code Club and CoderDojo have sprung up to take this message into thousands of schools. They provide a software solution - but children respond to something more physical, more tactile.

"But what can you do with it?" will often be the first question when you show them a new computer or a programming language. Kano plans to build further kits which would allow Raspberry Pi users to code and build all kinds of things. The team showed me one example, Steve the Robot, built by Matthew Keegan, a recent graduate from Aberystwyth University. (Here's a video I shot of the robot.)

Kano isn't the first to try to build a business from Raspberry Pi. Sheffield-based Pimoroni started with a case for the Pi and now offers all kinds of kits. Other firms are offering all types of accessories, software and tutorials. It is heartening to see a British-built and designed computer make so many waves - but there is still a lot of work to be done before the mission to inspire a new wave of computing creativity among children is achieved.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 135.

    We need to go back to basics (sic) in terms of coding. C++, Java, etc. are unnecessarily obtuse for young children just starting out and can put them off - teach the BASIC programming language. There are some good modern BASIC dialects out there - Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code - says it all.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 134.

    Been a software developer for over 30 years and gone from assembly language to C++ and GUI's. I like the idea of a small and inexpensive computer but the idea of using this for children is far fetched. Why not simply use Logo in schools to introduce children to computers and programming? Once you really understand how one coding system works you understand all coding systems.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 133.

    I'm not middle aged yet I still think the Pi is dumbing things down. I work in a sector where the 'command line' embedded devs out number the fluffy GUI devs at least 3 to 1. If you're teaching kids that programming and engineering is simply plugging a few things together and booting a pre-programmed board into a pretty GUI to play games then they will be very bored if they follow this as a job.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 132.

    There is a difference between the majority users and the engineers who create the deivces they love.
    Most users love to drive cars but probably never played with Meccano when they were young. Today, users love their tablets/smartphones but probably don't play with a Raspberry Pi.
    The world needs Meccano wielding future engineers just as much as they needs Pi wielding future programmers.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 131.

    Re #123: I've set up a Pi using OpenELEC for less than £45. The only thing different is I've not implemented Wi-Fi or additional USB's. If you're struggling, try going to www.xunitytalk.com for help :)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 130.

    65. Grab
    "You could turn the machine on, type '10 print "Hello"; 20 goto 10;' and something happened. Impossible with Windows - and with RPi."

    Assuming boot to bash shell with Pi, you could do this straight away:

    >while true; do echo Hello; done

    Python has an interactive mode but for 1 line at the prompt:

    >echo -e "while True:\n\tprint 'Hello'" |python

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 129.

    55 Laughingdevil

    I got a good Comp Sci degree - looking for work and all that was available for programmers was for minimum wage!

    Mmmm... doesn't altogether surprise me; in my experience Comp Sci grads had to be completely retaught for commercial life (why on earth would you try and rewrite the sort routine) - Chemical engineering grads however knew the importance of the KISS principle!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 128.

    Most people complaining about the "dumbing down" of R Pi are probably middle-aged men!
    The old days? C16: typed out programs from the manual, "perfectly", with spaces (lines wrapped-around) instead of CRs. Didn't work. Why not? No explanation in the manual, and only cryptic error messages: "SYNTAX ERROR", that's it. Took me weeks to figure it out!
    Perhaps we should just be smug watching them fail?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 127.

    Sounds like a good plan - we need more programmers and if jazzing it all up gets people learning then its a worthwhile investment. Love the keyboard in the pict.

    I have two PI's which I use to manage my reverse IP lookup tool, they basically just sit requesting websites. So many great opportunities to build fun and interesting projects - and also many of them so easily scalable for a little cash.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 126.

    106. DoNotLikeTheAttitude
    I don't understand why SeeDubya (72) is marked down for his opinion that 1980s home computers were easier to program than platforms such as Linux.

    Cheers, but I understand perfectly why it was marked down.
    As Sheldon Cooper said, "Windows 7 is much more user-friendly than Windows Vista. I don't like that."
    Difference is, he's a genius, they are not.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 125.

    In the early 80's I started with a TSR80 and a Z80 kit call the Micro Professor, spent a fortune and too many hours working on them and probably cost me my first marriage.

    However, 33 years later I am still employed and writing code you just need to put the effort in and that's what's missing with today's kids it has to be on a plate. Plug and Play.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 124.

    @76. LOL, typical unix stuff. What you type bears absolutely no relation to what you want and gives you no clue as to what is happening.

    PRINT or gt; ???

    I use linux based operating systems for citrix and websense and a lot of it is pretty much non intuitive, so you can't guess or work it out, you just have to know.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 123.

    I've spent £120 so far getting the stuff I need for my raspberry pi and I still haven't sorted out WiFi or extra USB ports. I wish I'd had something like this ages ago :(

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 122.

    120.Alan Weston

    Until you make programming cool/sexy then it will fail with mainstream kids.
    ===
    But you do not need Pi to do this. There is a plethora of free compilers, IDEs and all required programming tools available for Linux, Windows and Mac. For a GUI look at FLTK with a WISIWIG design tool that even writes the C++ code. (Works on Pi as well)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 121.

    114.Boris Roach

    What do you think runs stuff now?
    ===
    Smoke. See what happens when you let the smoke out of any piece of electronics, it quits working.

    Did you actually read my post or are you comprehensively challenged?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 120.

    Until you make programming cool/sexy then it will fail with mainstream kids. The Pi, in the right educational hands, could help with this but it needs to be part of a properly structured approach and not and end-of-term fun activity after SATs.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 119.

    "but we need students to learn Java and C++/C# to stop having to import such skills from abroad as we now do."

    The pace of change is too fast for unis to respond. The material is out of date after a year, they can't respond. Companies need to think outside the box when recruiting, most don't. I see good self-taught developers with no qualifications, with MScs, with the most unlikely credentials.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 118.

    There should always have been a simple interpreted programming language on mobile phones which gave access to hardware features. I think there's going to be an explosion in interest and interesting applications when Mozilla roll out a well-populated hardware API with Firefox OS so that anyone who can write a little javascript in their browser can also do IO.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 117.

    "Failing to see how a VC backed project to put a Raspberry Pi in a bright orange box with pretty wrapper around a linux distro is solving a genuine problem"

    And thats what the Linux brigade could never understand, the power of UX and usability. After all who could possibly NOT want to learn to do everything via command line in the terminal and have an ugly device...?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 116.

    98 mike
    but we need students to learn Java and C++/C# to stop having to import such skills from abroad as we now do.

    Actually I started on Algol back in the 70's and have worked in 9 different languages and variants since. We need to learn maths and logic skills (&business skills) - new languages are easy to pick up if the employer will bother to take the time to allow training

 

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