RaspberryPi — Your credit-card sized computer

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For a couple of months, I’ve been watching RaspberryPi with a lot of interest, because I think these guys are about to do something really cool for the computer industry.

RaspberryPi is working on creating a credit-card sized computer that can comfortably run Linux, connect to the internet and can take advantage of USB to allow you to connect up a whole range of cool devices. If that hasn’t got your attention, then maybe the fact that it is claiming that when the product goes to market the company wants to sell at a price-point of around US$25 to US$30 per unit. Awesome.

RaspberryPi was set up by Eben Upton, a circuit-board architect working at Broadcom, who along with friends from Cambridge University, felt that interest in the Computer Science course at Cambridge was seeing a gradual decline in applicants. He felt that part of the reason for this was that there was a general lack of availability of cheap programmable hardware similar to that which was available in the 1980s.

RaspberryPi was created as a charity organisation dedicated toward providing this sort of cheap hardware to encourage interest in computer science. Now that the alpha release boards are out, it looks very much like his organisation may be about to realise its goal. The site is literally packed with comments from interested geeks and Eben has reported that they have had interest from everyone from HAM Radio enthusiasts through to the Aerospace industry.

The RaspberryPi machines make use of an ARM processor and come with a USB controller, Ethernet connector, HDMI port and 256MB RAM. Underneath the motherboard, there is a slot to add an SD-card to provide storage for the base operating system and whatever else you can fit onto a card. The really exciting thing is that although RaspberryPi is providing an incredibly versatile system that provides a range of I/O capabilities that can be used to build almost anything you can think of. The team is not stopping with the core system either. Plans are already afoot to develop daughter-boards that can be connected up to provide additional functionality and that new developers can write programs for in order to take full advantage of the platform.

There has been some criticism that providing a system capable of running a full-blown operating system is not exactly going to encourage users to learn how to program to take advantage of the hardware and to extend it, more likely we will see these systems being used to run software that is already available for Linux. I think this is a very narrow-viewed attack on the project. Firstly, Computer Science isn’t just about programming hardware. Sure, this is one of Eben’s main goals, but getting people to think about how they can use systems and get those systems to interact is also a major step forward.

I am certain that the market this device is aimed at is one that breeds interest in working out how to extend functionality and will naturally harbour the types of individuals who want to explore ways in which to take advantage of the hardware to create new and interesting tools. Okay, so a few users might play around with running a LAMP stack on a machine that can fit into your wallet, but it isn’t exactly a good reason to criticise the project at the outset.

The RaspberryPi team is hoping to reach launch before the end of the year, and is planning on shipping internationally. While RaspberryPi is not unique in offering this sort of hardware, and is entering into the market to compete with Arduino, BeagleBoard and Gumstix, the price that it’s aiming at is significantly lower than the other available platforms. RaspberryPi is also aiming to provide more powerful processing and better multimedia capabilities. At this price, I’ll be monitoring that site until launch so that I make sure I’m in the queue to pick one of these systems up. My mind is already brimming with creative ideas.

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