This column is from The MagPi issue 50. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.
Last month, the Raspberry Pi Foundation hit a major milestone by selling its ten millionth computer. Besides taking the opportunity to celebrate – and celebrate we did – it’s also a good time to reflect on the impact that the device has had over the last four and a half years. As you may know already, we don’t just make an ultra-affordable computer. Our mission is to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world; the Raspberry Pi computer helps us do that.
There are many ways in which the Raspberry Pi has a positive impact on the world. It’s used in classrooms, libraries, hackspaces, research laboratories, and within the industrial environment. People of all ages use Raspberry Pi, in these contexts and others, to learn about computing and to create things with computers that we never could have imagined.
But I believe the biggest impact we’ve had was to encourage more people to experiment with computers once again. It used to be that in order to use a computer, you had to have fairly good knowledge of how it worked, and often you needed to know how to program it. Since then, computers have become much more mainstream and consumer-friendly. On the one hand, that change has had an incredible impact on our society, giving more people access to the power of computing and the internet. However, there was a trade-off. In order to make computers easier to use, they also became less ‘tinker-friendly’.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, our family had an old IBM PC in our basement, that was decommissioned from my father’s workplace. On that computer, I learned how to use the DOS prompt to work with files, I created my own menu system out of batch files, and most importantly, I learned my first ever programming language: BASIC.
I feel very lucky that I had access to that computer. That kind of early exposure had such a huge impact on my life. For years I continued to learn programming, both in school and in my own time. Even though I’ve benefited greatly from the mainstream, consumer-friendly technology that has since become available, I still use and build upon the skills that I learned as a kid on that IBM PC. Programming languages and hardware have changed a lot, but the fundamental concepts of computing have remained mostly the same.
The Next Generation
I expect that the Raspberry Pi has a very similar impact on young people today. For them, it fills the void that was left when computers became less like programmable machines and more like consumer products. I suspect that, just like with me, this impact will linger for years to come as these young people grow up and enter a workforce that’s increasingly dependent on their digital skills. And if even just a tiny bit of interest in computing is the spark, then I believe that a tinker-friendly computer like Raspberry Pi is the kindling.
Here’s where that ten million number comes into play. Admittedly, not everyone who is exposed to a Raspberry Pi will be affected by it. But even if you guess conservatively that only a small fraction of all the Raspberry Pis out in the world serve to inspire a young person, it still adds up to an incredible impact on many lives; not just right now, but for many years to come. It’s quite possible that many of tomorrow’s computer scientists and technology specialists are experimenting with a few of the first ten million Raspberry Pis right now.