Pi: it’s the software, stupid…

Yesterday, Donald Clark (who describes himself as a man with enough time) gave the Raspberry Pi a bit of a kicking behind the bike sheds. He detailed 7 reasons why it won’t work. His main question, though not bolded was: How do you actually learn with this thing? That’s the first problem. The Pi isn’t … Continue reading “Pi: it’s the software, stupid…”

Yesterday, Donald Clark (who describes himself as a man with enough time) gave the Raspberry Pi a bit of a kicking behind the bike sheds. He detailed 7 reasons why it won’t work.

His main question, though not bolded was: How do you actually learn with this thing?

That’s the first problem. The Pi isn’t a learning device. It’s a cheap introduction to computers. I believe the purpose of the device is to see whether the spark that turned a generation of young geeks into modern day programmers could be replicated with a device in 2012 that was a fifth of the price of the ancestors from the early 80s.

His main beefs and my point of view.

1. Amateurishness.

It’s not for everyone. I wonder if it is even for me. My interest in the Pi is in a score of cheap devices in tiny custom cases that can provide little services around the house. An AirPlay device for all of the TVs in the house? Sure. But having to fight with Linux? *sigh*

2. Nostalgia.

The device is definitely aimed at 40 year old men who remember the Spectrum, the Commodore and the BBC from their youth. They’re buying them for their kids. I know a couple of dads with no programming knowledge who think the Pi is a cheap computer for kids. It’s obviously not that.

3. Lack of realism.

I don’t think the goals are unrealistic. I think that others have greater expectations than the developers might have given themselves. The thing is: when you’re shooting for the stars and you hit the moon, you have to still congratulate yourself. Just ask Elon Musk.

4. Hardware fixation.

I’m most encouraged that it’s a low power ARM design that will do stuff. You do have to wonder why Arduino wasn’t good enough. And we’re seeing a raft of Android circuit board clones appearing. The hardware is important but, as Donald days, it’s not as important as the software.

5. Learning ignored.

I know of two projects which are dedicated to building software stacks for the Pi for schools. There will be more. Others have already ported Scratch to the Pi. That’s a great start. Learning happens. The problem is there is little support for Teaching.

6. Wrong target audience.

I’m interested in what could be done to make this appeal to 11 year olds. Release the code to some basic games? Make sure there’s a GameMaker software stack available? The thing that is missing here is the raft of support materials we had in the 80s; the magazines.

7. Not cool.

It’s differently cool. It’s not “Not cool”, it’s just different.

So, will it fail?

I agree with Donald that “it’s the software, stupid” and giving people Python as a development environment is not the same as the plethora of magazines such as Crash, C&VG, Your Spectrum, Your Sinclair, Sinclair User, Sinclair Programs, ZX Computing, MicroHobby and more.

I’m not interested in sitting back and waiting for it fail. I’m keen on doing something to help.

17 thoughts on “Pi: it’s the software, stupid…”

  1. My Pi arrived a couple of days ago and stupidly I didn’t prepare an SD card – picking one up tonight and can’t wait to get cracking into it.

    I read Donald’s article and it just stank of someone reviewing something that they are not the target market for. He seemed to want something easy, and pretty much the entire point of the pi (or at least this is how I have taken it) is that it is for inquisitive minds to dig into.

    Whilst overall it is a good thing that both software and hardware are getting more and more accessible for the layman, there is a small part of me that longs for the days when it took a real nerd to get the most out of something. The pi is a return to those days, next to useless in the hands of ‘normies’ with no desire to play but in the hands of an inquisitive geek… well I am getting giddy thinking about it.

  2. Inevitably they will, a lot of people will pick them up as a cheap gimmick, realise they don’t actually like Linux for whatever reason and leave them at their backside.

    I think what will help is when people start blogging about how easy it is to get LoveFilm and the like streaming on your TV with this cheap device – things like that which will peak the interest of tech people who just like cool gadgets.

  3. My grandfather taught me how to program on BBC micro when I was 8 , just basic for loops.. little text based games. I want to teach my little brother now as hes the same age (and so does my grandfather)

    I tried to get him admitted into the Coder Dojo in Derry, they would not take him as he was too young. That prompted me to have a “I’ll do it meself attitude”

    So far i got, a PI, Soldering Kit, Basic Eletronics Kit, GPIO header cable, SD Card, Solar Cell and 4 Battery Array, powered USB hub, Prototype PCB with breakout area, A soldering kit for kids, Microkeyboard (with built in touchpad) and some PCBS to play around with basic eletronics circuits (while not connected to GPIO), just stuff like resistors and LED’s

    The “master plan” is to trick out his Lunch box.

    Get a plastic kids lunchbox. Cut it up, mount the solar panel, a 5V Screen and pi. Have a few wee LEDs and Buzzers that he can activate from the PI from some basic interface made in scratch and still have enough space for him to actually carry his lunch in there.

    We’ll get him to do all the soldering and glue gunning himself under our supervision, We’ll help with all the programming too

    The main thing to teach is that technology is not scary. The best part is if it gets broken. It’s fine. The whole thing so far cost about £60 (and that would be assuming that he managed to break every single part)

  4. Hi Aaron,

    I bring my 7 and 8 year old kids to Coderdojo. They’re only meant for 10+ but rules are made to be broken. I didn’t ask – I just turned up. And they’ve done fine.

    I am amused about the idea of having a lunchbox filled with wires. In Northern Ireland. LOL.

  5. That lunchbox idea is brilliant.

    I am going to break into my big box of legos at my mums house and make myself a pi enclosure, complete with pirates.

    I wonder if they accept 26 year old kids at this Coderdojo…

  6. “The thing that is missing here is the raft of support materials we had in the 80s; the magazines”

    No, now there is the Internet. It’s infinitely better than an expensive, monthly non-interactive papery thing.

    A StackOverflow for Pi would be nice.

  7. In terms of using the Raspberry Pi as an “educational tool”, I completely agree with Aaron regarding its use to cultivate a D.I.Y. ethic, in conjunction with teaching kids that technology isn’t scary (though from what I’ve seen, young children don’t appear to have an issue/fear in adopting technology). The problem will be in finding ‘educators’ that are actually skilled enough to set up and use the device for teaching Python/Scratch, etc.

  8. Speaking of Education – which I gather is a large reason for the Pi to exist – I’m not sure how the devices would be used in schools, to be honest.

    They run Linux, so sure, you could use them as PC replacement – but you still need to buy a TV/monitor, keyboard, mouse and worry about networking and so on. Plus, you’ll be teaching them what exactly? OpenOffice? Python?

    So what’s the plan – use them to learn embedded systems engineering? In other words, use it as a alternative to an Arduino? No, that’s no use either – the Arduino has a much better infrastructure already – it’s got a great little iDE, and you can buy ready-to-go robot kids. Assuming you have a smart teacher, that’s a great solution and cheaper than the robot kits that some schools currently use.

    In other words, I don’t see the Pi having a place in the school. Instead, nerd kids will want one to mess around with at home – nerd kids who would be currently trying to write apps for their iPhones and Android phones. However, there’s the rub – it will be tricky to get the nerd kids to abandon the app store (because of the promise of fame and riches and kudos from peers) to work on the Pi. If I was a nerd kid again, I’d be writing iPhone / Android apps. How things change.

    I’ve a horrible feeling the Pi is ten years too late, and its main customers will be middle-aged tinkerers who want to automate their sheds / build remote plant water sensors to impress (not) their wives, or to try out Linux without reformatting their Mac Book. The Pi is a nice little tool for the tinkerer’s toolbox, but it’s not going to create a generation of coders.

    Apple/Google is doing that for us already.

    1. As a non-programmer parent, I’ve really enjoyed CoderDojo in Belfast with my kids. For the most part, I’ve been guiding them through GameMaker and without much recourse to the mentors.

      One of the supported distros for the Pi includes Scratch. That just reminds me how much fun it would be to get Scratch running on iPod touch/iPad for school kids. It’s a shame that MIT can’t figure out how to release it and comply with Apple’s rules the way Codea has managed.

      I remain bullish on the Pi because the are so few alternatives (unlike the Galaxy Media Player). Writing code for it will not come naturally to me but I’m willing to try to help my kids – my kids who enjoyed GameMaker but then returned to Minecraft afterwards.

  9. I think the point is that Scratch on the Pi will actually suck to use, and even a cheap PC would be much more fun to work on. Once you add a display, keyboard, mouse, SD card etc. to a Pi you are a good way towards getting a used PC which will run rings about the Pi.

    The first rule of encouraging folks to do something is to make it EASY and PLEASURABLE, right? Making them use a god-awful linux distro is neither – it’s just cheap.

    Now, building a little robot with the Pi will be fun. The fact it can easily be used with wireless networks is important – it’s a PITA getting the Arduino online. That’s why I’m getting a Pi when I can.

    1. As I said, Scratch on the iPod touch/iPad would make a lot more sense. And I don’t quite understand the need for side loading or downloading code (the issue that MIT are facing with Apple).

      Ship some apps within it and let people experiment. But yes, make it not suck to use.

      I likely will not get a Pi for personal use. I’ll probably end up doing some day job stuff with it (while I’m still doing this job). The idea of fighting with Debian to get sound working is just simply far too much like 1999.

  10. Yes, an iPad would be great for this.

    I think Apple don’t want to provide a thin edge of the wedge by allowing a fully independent app development tool.

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