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Raspberry Pi takes aim at the education market

The Raspberry Pi project, founded by Broadcom engineer Eben Upton and co-creator of Elite David Braben, aims to revolutionise the education industry with an ultra-cheap computer capable of amazing feats of computation.

Attendees of the Educating Programmers Summit found themselves treated to a demonstration of the Raspberry Pi single-board computer by co-creator Eben Upton. Based on chips from Upton's day job at Broadcom, the Raspberry Pi is an entirely functional computer which will hit a retail price of just $25 in its basic incarnation - addressing one of the issues preventing the teaching of programming in schools today.

"For $25 we can give you a 700MHz ARM, we can give you more graphical performance than an Xbox One, we can give you the ability to play 1080p Blu-ray - this thing can even be used to replace your Apple TV," he told attendees over an early prototype board. "For $35 we can add to that another 128MB of RAM, we can add the network option - and based on the feedback we've had online, we suspect that most of our business is going to be in that $35 point.

"Even at $35, you could equip a classroom of these for less than a thousand dollars. I was doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation earlier: with Gift Aid in the UK, if you could find a philantropist willing to shell out £500, you could probably just about equip a class once you've got the Gift Aid on top. You could probably equip a classroom with £500 from one person, one donation."

That's a key point, Upton argues: even with the low cost of PCs today, many families have a single computer which is located in a shared area. While it's perfectly possible to program on such a system, it's often discouraged in case the system gets 'broken' by the 'fiddling around' - unlike the days of ROM-based microcomputers, when any mistakes could be rectified with a flick of the power switch. By reducing the cost to an almost disposable level, Upton hopes that the Raspberry Pi project will bring back the glory days of home and school programming - a BBC Micro for the modern era.

"Obviously there's an issue of display," Upton admitted. "You have to have a display output device. We can plug into DVI monitors, HDMI TVs, or analogue TVs - and the old analogue TVs are a feature to die for, right? We want the 1980s idea of a computer being a machine that turns your television into a computer. So if you have a television, you can have a computer."

Despite its bargain-basement price, the Raspberry Pi is an incredibly capable machine. Featuring a Broadcom application processor based on the ARMv6 instruction set and originally designed for accelerating media playback in embedded devices, the low-power device is more than capable of playing back 1080p video via the embedded HDMI connector. The 3D capabilities are also impressive, with a recent video having been released showing the device running multiplayer FPS Quake III Arena at a totally playable frame rate despite the processor's 700MHz clock speed.

The Raspberry Pi project is proving popular with geeks, but it's also causing waves elsewhere in the world. "We had about five thousand emails," Upton explained, "of which a lot of them were from people in the developing world - people saying 'I've got this group here, can I have a thousand of them,' or 'can I be your exclusive distributor in Ghana' or somewhere like that. We have a lot of interest in the sub-Sahara and South America.

"What was interesting on the cost front was there isn't really a volume discount: the one-off price and a thousand-off price are the same. But the thing that makes the distribution network work is the cost of shipping. We can, in theory, FedEx drop-ship these things to people all over the world, however that's going to be expensive. You've got a $25 computer, and $50 shipping to some random place a long way away becomes a real issue. So, there's still a good business model for the guy who buys 100 in a box and then resells them locally."

While a $25 computer running a fully-featured graphical operating system - the demonstration unit at the summit was loading a vanilla Debian install from its embedded SD card reader - has major implications for the developing world and an education sector which is seeing its already meagre budgets shrunk still further, Upton is expecting a flurry of interest from enthusiasts and hackers come the planned November launch.

"The best email I've had is from people with the Sinclair QL," Upton laughingly recalled. "We had an email asking if it was possible to have it booting to a Sinclair QL emulator, because their Sinclair QLs are getting old and they want to put them inside their Sinclair QL box so they can pretend that they're still using a Sinclair QL and don't have to worry about the fact that all the EPROMS are suffering from bit rot. That was the best one that I could find, but we've had an enormous response - we've been overwhelmed by emails."

With the project generating interest even at this stage, the Raspberry Pi could be the must-have stocking stuffer for this year's geeky Christmas. For proof of its capabilities, check out the video of it running Quake III Arena below.