Wednesday, 29 February 2012

At The End Of The Rainbow

It seems we can finally answer that eternal question:

What lies at the end of the rainbow?

No, it's not Manic Miner. If anything that may be what lies at the beginning. And before Commodore 64, BBC Micro, and even ZX81 (or even ZX80, and not to forget Altair 8800) fans jump at my presumption that affordable home computing began with Sinclair ZX Spectrum,I'll just say - I could care less, but I don't. Also, if you think I'm insisting on Spectrum just because that was what started me on the weird and wonderful path, let me tell you that it didn't. And that I won't dwell on this any more.

On the other hand, and I think anyone will find it hard to really argue otherwise, the rainbow stripes of ZX Spectrum were in many ways the rainbow which lit up enthusiast home computing. So, indulge me, suspend disbelief, and follow the rainbow arc from that golden time of thirty years all the way to the present.

And the ride was just like along an arc. We all, very excitingly and very excited throughout, shot into the beautiful world of making computers do what we wanted, as opposed to what some company wanted. The high was exhilarating, even if the ride was necessarily bumpy. But then, those bumps were part of the magic, and we loved them, too.

Then, somehow, things got out of hand. Or rather, the prices. What was a cheap little computer which most families could afford, and probably one for each child, morphed into thousand dollar beasts that were IBM compatible PCs, not to mention even more expensive (and still even more expensive) Apples. Suddenly the computing revolution not quite ate its children as priced them out of the market. Now most people could not own a computer, and if their parents did they probably weren't very keen on their kids messing around them.

Worse still, and a lingering problem even now when a lot of computers are actually affordable again, programming of the beasts became much more complicated. And even if it didn't (and I don't really think it did, at least for the real enthusiast) it got progressively harder to really get to know your machine. They became both much too complex for an amateur to comprehend fully, and there also wasn't nearly enough reference material from which to learn eve if you could afford the time. While it was - and is - definitely still possible to mess around a personal computer it became just too time consuming for someone with other things to do or other interests to pursue.

A few abortive attempts were made with cheap computers for developing nations, but most of them failed for various reasons and in various ways. Netbooks started cheap and simple only to mutate into too expensive, but too underpowered little things good only for use under duress. It seemed all hope is lost.

But then, there came Raspberry Pi. They promised a basic computer the size of a matchbox and a price to match (excuse the pun). A quite decently specified Linux machine for $25/$35? It sounded like just one more failed idea. Fortunately, in that venerable spirit of British back room boys, it actually happened. As of this writing a first batch of 10,000 units has sold out in just a couple of hours, and in the process effectively DDoSed the web sites of electronics giants RS Components and Premier Farnell!

Talk about pent up demand and sheer excitement! If this doesn't prove that there is a huge grass-roots interest for truly affordable - and intellectuality graspable - creative computing then I don't know what does.  And it just has to be creative. The Raspberry Pi is really of no use to anyone for anything unless they want to spend time and effort and build something useful out of it. This is not demand for a $35 computer which will be used to surf the web and watch (porn) films. This is demand for a device that is cheap enough to warrant spending time, effort, and some extra money, too, so that it can be cajoled into doing something interesting, if not necessarily useful, which general purpose computers, regardless how complex or affordable, just cannot do.

And so, travelling up and down the arc of the ZX Spectrum home computing revolution rainbow, we reach the other end where, instead of the proverbial pot of gold, we find a sweet little fruit - not an Apple! - which reinvigorates the same forces and elicits much the same excitement and feelings we all had thirty years ago. Mind you, this is not (just) nostalgia of a bunch of old timers. The excitement may be the same as the one of old, but the excited ones are most definitely the young 'uns of today.

This end of the rainbow need not be the end at all, either. Hopefully, it will be a lesson learned. A lesson that teaches us two things, really: yes, you can always build a truly affordable computer - you just need to try hard enough, and yes, there always is interest among the kids to build stuff of their own, and to challenge themselves and everyone around them.

Now, there's only one way to end this (overlong - as usual) post - with a question:

What will you build today?

You may have to hold your horses until batch 2, or even 3, is ready.
Unless you are obsessive-compulsive F5 hitter, that is.