When the Raspberry Pi Foundation introduced its namesake low-cost computer a couple of years ago, the aim was to foster an interest in IT and the requisite developer skills among the younger generation, primarily by offering a device cheap enough that any family could afford one for their child to use at home.
Since then, the Raspberry Pi has proved a hit in wider circles than its target market, with many hobbyists and enthusiasts seizing on the device as a platform for building projects such as robots or even a home-brewed smartphone.
It is perhaps this broader use of the device that holds the promise of revitalising the UK tech sector more than the strictly educational use, as enthusiasts experimenting with technology is what kick-started the home computer industry in this country all those years ago.
As someone who has had more than their fair share of soldering iron burns from tinkering with hardware in the past, the new generation of devices such as the Raspberry Pi Compute Module announced in April and Intel's upcoming Edison offer a new chance to get your hands dirty once again.
It hasn't always been this way. In my younger days, sometime in the dim and distant past, it was entirely possible to design and build your own project using off-the-shelf computer chips and components. However, as technology advanced and processors became more complex, the chips themselves started to get physically smaller, yet sprouted more and more pins, as processors moved from 8-bit to 16-bit and then 32-bit technology.
Eventually, it became almost impossible for hobbyists to build things around the newer chips. They were so small and the pins so close together that only a factory assembly line could put circuit boards together. It looked like the days of the home build enthusiast were numbered.
This is where the Raspberry Pi Compute Module and Intel's Edison fit in. Technology has now advanced to the stage where an entire computer can be delivered on a tiny circuit board the size of a memory module in the case of the Raspberry Pi, while the Edison started out as the size of an SD Card, but is apparently undergoing a redesign that will see a slightly larger product come to market sometime later this year.
What these two devices offer is the ability for a hobbyist to design a project that the Raspberry Pi Compute Module or Edison can simply drop into as the core processing engine, and deliver quite a serious level of compute performance.
In the case of the Raspberry Pi, you're getting a 700MHz ARM processor with 512MB memory and 4GB of flash storage, offering a large number of programmable I/O connections and even a video output capable of driving a monitor screen, if required.
This is a huge step up in capabilities from hardware such as the Arduino boards that hobbyists have had access to in the past, and makes possible a much broader range of projects, especially as the Pi is capable of running a full-blown desktop operating system such as Linux.
With growing interest in the Internet of Things, devices such as these could be a catalyst for the development of new and interesting applications. With the low cost of the Raspberry Pi hardware in particular, almost anyone could get involved in shaping the future direction of the technology in a way that hasn't happened since the early home computers made it possible for anyone to come up with a compelling application.
If this is the case, we could be on the verge of a new home computer revolution. Let's hope that, with the Raspberry Pi being developed in the UK, this country might be at the cutting edge of it once more.
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