Return of Vic & the Commodore

Once upon a time, students learned a programming language to write software code because the first generation of personal computers lacked commerically-available software. If you wanted the computer to perform a task, then you wrote a program just for that task. Over time, students no longer needed that ability as software became ubiquitous and powerful. Now, students knew how to write apps and CSS templates, which do not require the student to learn a language. Students still need to know how a computer functions and write code noted Eben Upton, who saw an opportunity. The money observation:

Easy-to-use, modern PCs hide most of the nuts and bolts behind a pleasing interface. Mr. Upton posited that parents did not want their children to destroy their expensive computers by experimenting with their insides. But a cheaper machine would be fair game for messing around.

So, Upton created the Raspberry Pi, a 3 inch by 2 inch by 1 inch computer. It sells for $35 and does little out of the box except power on. The device, as shown, lacks, a keyboard. The user must write the programs.

A computer so small, it (almost) fits inside a breath mint tin.

In reading about and looking at the Raspberry Pi, I am struck by full circle we have come with the launch of a computer on a stick. The Vic 20 and, its more powerful and better selling successor, the Commodore 64 offered the same features as the Raspberry Pi. Except the V20 and C64 came with a keyboard. Indeed, the CPU and the keyboard were one unit. For storage, printing, and video, you needed ports and plugs to connect external devices like a tape drive, a television set, and a printer.

Commodore 64

The programming languages, though, separate the C64 from the Raspberry Pi. Using a C64, a user could write programs in a select few languages that were primitive in design and structure. I found it difficult to understand and master the structure of Fortran, Pascal, and Cobol. Basic, though, was easier to understand and master, but a terribly cumbersome programming language.

In contrast, the available languages for the Raspberry Pi range from the simple to the complex. Several books such as Python for Kids should draw novices to the Raspberry Pi.

Beyond computer scientists, and hobbyists, programming in of itself offers little direct application. Cheap, powerful computers pushed the C64 aside; relegating it to very small market segment. Users have little extrinsic motivation to learn let alone master a language because software exists to perform needed tasks.

However, there is something to be said for learning the logic of a language, and understanding its structure. Perhaps that is what Upton and his colleagues require of their incoming students. Maybe that's the more valuable lesson the Raspberry Pi can teach.

To a broader point, though, the Raspberry Pi's simple but powerful package offers something greater. It could be a tool that encourages people to cultivate their learning orientation. The little computer could be the starting point for people to learn simply for a specific task such as a completing a quiz or stocking the shelf. Rather, people explore the limits of learning. In that sense, the Raspberry Pi is worth more than the $35 purchase price.