Raspberry Pi 400: A computer for the coronavirus age?

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

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Image source, Raspberry Pi

A whole computer contained in a keyboard - just connect it to a monitor and you are ready to go.

It sounds like an idea from the 1980s. Remember the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore Amiga or the BBC Micro?

Well, the 2020 version is the Pi 400. It's the latest product from Raspberry Pi, the organisation founded to get children coding.

And the £67 device - or £95 with a mouse and cables - may help answer the challenge of getting cheap computing to youngsters affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The idea, says the organisation's founder Eben Upton, is to mirror the simplicity of those 1980s devices.

"It gets into your life as a utility device, as a thing that you buy to do your schoolwork or play games on," he explains.

"But it's bundled with everything that you need and it kind of sidles its way into your life."

Image caption,
The computer comes with its own operating system but can also be made to run a version of Windows

With sales of 36 million since its launch in 2012, Raspberry Pi is already the best-selling British computer ever made.

But the original bare-bones device was somewhat intimidating. You needed to hunt down a set of cables, a mouse, a keyboard and a monitor.

Now, apart from a monitor or TV, you can get all of that in one kit.

And the Pi 400 already appears to be selling very well, with some distributors out of stock.

Image caption,
The computer-in-a-keyboard design harks backs to the BBC Micro and other home computers of the 1980s

Disadvantaged children

There has always been a danger that the commercial success of the tiny computer would divert the organisation away from its core educational mission.

But Eben Upton is clear about the audience this product is really aimed at.

"Seven hundred thousand kids got sent home from school in March without a PC," he explains.

"This is a machine for anyone who needs a PC. And [if] there's one thing we've learned this year - there are still vast numbers in society who need a PC."

While most children are now back in school, says Upton, the problem is definitely not solved.

The government did launch a programme to get laptops to disadvantaged children in homes without computers, but head teachers have said there are still not enough to go round

"We've known for ages that the digital divide is very real for kids," says Philip Colligan, who runs Raspberry Pi's charitable arm.

Image source, Raspberry Pi
Image caption,
The computer has two mini-HDMI ports to let it be connected to a monitor or TV, and can deliver a 4K image

He says that was brought into sharp relief during the first lockdown, when for some children online learning became an almost impossible challenge.

"There were lots of stories about kids using their parents' mobile phones and interacting with software that was not designed to work on a phone," he says.

Others unconnected to the effort are also optimistic about its role in closing the digital divide.

"Affordable new computers with exciting form-factors like the Raspberry Pi 400 have real potential to close this gap," said Julia Adamson, director of education at the Chartered Institute for IT.

"But to do that, they need to be supported by content, guidance and resources, used to enrich children's and parents' knowledge, understanding and skills."

Old monitors

Raspberry Pi has launched a programme called Stay Connected with School.

It worked with voluntary organisations to provide families not just with a Raspberry Pi 4, but with all the kit and software needed to connect to a school's online learning environment and telephone support, whenever they needed it.

But that only reached a thousand families. It is now hoped that the Pi 400 can be the platform for a wider initiative.

There will still be a problem in some homes, because plugging a computer into the family TV for hours on end will not always be popular.

Image source, University of Cambridge
Image caption,
Earlier versions of the Raspberry Pi presented a more bare-bones product

And how many of us have an old computer monitor in the attic?

But there's scope here for a charity campaign, which would also have a green element.

As Eben Upton points out, plenty of businesses do have old monitors just sitting around which might otherwise end up on a dump.

There has been a major effort over recent years to try to improve the digital skills of a generation which will find them essential when they enter the workforce.

That has seen changes to the curriculum, and thousands of after-school coding clubs have opened. But even if the schools have reopened, most of the clubs have not, so there is a real danger that the skills gap will grow even wider.

"The cost of solving this problem," says Mr Colligan, "is now trivial compared to the negative impact it has on young people's learning."

The Pi 400 is just one small contribution to closing the digital divide, and there are other cheap computers available.

With more children likely to be dependent on remote learning in the coming months, this looks like an opportunity for the wider technology industry - which has been prospering during the pandemic - to show it can give something back.

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