Raspberry Pi 400

Raspberry Pi has announced a new $100 computer that I hope can be as significant for 21st century kids as the Commodore 64 was for me

The Raspberry Pi 400 (link is to a review on Ars Technica) is a faster version of the famously affordable computer, now embedded in a keyboard with a suite of USB and display ports. The computer on its own is only $70, but a kit for $100 makes it an affordable desktop PC with everything you need except for the monitor.

For those of us who grew up in the 80s (or 90s, probably), I can’t imagine seeing this and not getting excited about the potential. I can still remember my mom taking me to K-Mart to get my first computer, a Commodore 64. More vividly than most things I can still remember from the 80s: I remember the dim fluorescent lighting, I remember the stacks of boxes and the excitement of getting to take one off the shelf, I remember getting a spiral-bound introduction to BASIC programming book to go with it, and I remember sitting in the kitchen, hooking it up to a TV to try it out and get our first ?SYNTAX ERROR.

In the video above, Lady Ada compares it to the Apple IIe, but everything Apple was out of my price range. It’d be a huge mistake for those of us who are now surrounded by electronics to forget that the definition of “affordable” can be wildly different for us than it is for most people. It’d be a mistake to underestimate the barriers to entry, as well. The Raspberry Pi series has always been a low-cost, modestly-powerful computer, but shipped as a bare board — even if it does come in a kit with a case — it implies a hobbyist device, instead of an entry-level PC.

I’m all-in on the iPad (and have been for 10 years). I think they’re brilliantly designed and only get better with each new design. I agree with Apple that they’re the future of personal computing. Since I got a keyboard case, the iPad has become the computer that I carry around with me, replacing a heavier (and much much hotter) MacBook Pro. I love what they’ve done for expanding accessibility, sometimes becoming the computer of choice for both small children and techno-phobic seniors.

But I also can’t dismiss the most common criticisms of the iPad: even as they get affordable, they’re still too expensive to be truly mass market.1Which isn’t necessarily bad: I’ve read so many frustrated reviews of cheap tablets that I suspect a truly low-margin iPad would probably be more harmful to the brand than it would be good for computing. And while they’ve gotten more and more capable, they’re still more suited to consumption than creation. This argument has been going back and forth for as long as there’s been an iPad — or more accurately, for as long as Apple has controlled what you can run on an iOS device — with people pointing to best-in-class apps like Procreate for art creation, or any of the dozens of excellent word processors, or GarageBand 2Which I like even better on iOS/iPad OS than the MacOS version. and other music-generation software, as proof that the iPad is capable of creative projects, and is more than just a video player and e-book reader. And it is. But I still say that the “creation vs consumption” line with computers is being able to make something that runs natively on the device using only the device itself. It’s a limitation that I’m constantly running into on the iPad, and even being able to run an iPad-native HyperCard equivalent 3Updated for 2020, obviously. would make all the difference for me.

That’s what’s exciting about the Raspberry Pi 400, to me. I could totally see giving one of these to a kid and telling them to do whatever they can imagine with it. They don’t have to be too concerned about breaking it, or irreparably messing it up. And the focus is on what they can make, not what they can do within the constraints of software that other people have already made. I do realize that we’re long past the days of starting up a computer and immediately getting a BASIC prompt, but there was so much power implicit in the suggestion that you start by programming software, not just running other people’s software.

I’m too far removed from educational software to have a good idea what barriers are in front of a kid learning to program these days. More options aren’t an advantage when you’re trying to get started. For all I know, the path I took through programming is an evolutionary dead end, and web development is the only thing worth learning anymore. But whatever the starting point, I can guarantee it’ll run on this inexpensive computer.

Incidentally, I was glad to see that Raspberry Pi hasn’t completely abandoned its hobbyist heritage, and they left the general purpose IO pins available in the back of the Pi 400. I wish I’d had more opportunities to experiment with electrical engineering and more physical projects like robotics, instead of being limited to just software.

The Pi has already gotten a reputation as a good entry-level computer, so making it easier and more accessible should only help. It’s unlikely it’ll be as hugely transformative as the C-64/Apple II/Atari ST were, or even the iPad for that matter, just because there are more options and more points of entry these days. But I hope the philosophy behind those machines makes a comeback, encouraging users to turn it on and immediately start making stuff with it.

5 thoughts on “Raspberry Pi 400”

  1. Funnily, enough, right at the time you posted this, someone on LinkedIn was talking about a startup they’re helping to get low-cost computers to a lot of globally disadvantaged populations. And this is right up that alley. I always admired the One Laptop Per Child program, even if I thought Negroponte was kind of a douche, and I think in a lot of places that are … well, not the first-world places I’m familiar with, access to this kind of technology – access alone – would be world-changing.

    I always think of the idea that one of the ways you can be more successful is to unlock more peoples’ potential. That we became more powerful as a species when women could participate. That we will become more powerful when people currently in poverty or third-world circumstances have access to the kind of technological power that we take for granted every day. Instead of having a bunch of Stanford startup wannabes talking about the “Uber for dogs”, you’ll have people using this stuff to solve actual, real, pressing problems that can change their lives for the better.

    I remember the day my dad brought home the C64. I remember it *vividly*. We plugged in a Jupiter Lander cartridge, and that single moment probably did more to set me on the path I ended up on today than anything else before or since.

    1. Also just on a funny note, Ada’s been in our house. One of our friends is good friends with her, and she ended up over one evening. I have no doubt she would not remember me at all – but it’s funny, because this was maybe in the very earliest days of Adafruit, and I’m so happy she’s been successful.

    2. It’s funny, those three examples in your two comments are like the entire spectrum of 21st century entrepreneurs — the OLPC initiative, which undeniably started out with the best of intentions but kind of fizzled into a weird combination of feeling like “white saviors” and feeling superfluous when targeted at communities where even clean water is still an issue. Then the Silicon Valley/Uber dipshits, which ceaselessly talked about “disruption” even though it was clear they just wanted to make the stratification even wider, with them on the top, all the while spreading bullshit about how they were “democratizing” the economy. And then Adafruit, who I’ll never stop promoting wherever I can, since to me there a shining example of a how a company can be founded and run ethically, staying profitable (as far as I can tell) while still keeping social responsibility a priority.

      1. I like startups that are businesses that solve problems and make products people need or love. I hate the companies that chase valuation and prestige, and in a way both the Uber for dogs and OLPC crowd fall into the latter.

        To some extent, something like OLPC needs a visible champion who can marshall the resources and energy necessary to get people behind an unpopular cause – but Negroponte wasn’t that guy. I don’t know who would be, but I’d love to see someone who could do that well.

        1. I don’t know enough about OLPC, and I honestly don’t know whether I’m coming from a place of being “realistic,” or just good, old-fashioned “too privileged to understand what life is actually like for other people,” but I can’t shake the feeling that the resources required to give kids crank-powered, underpowered computers would be better spent on basic infrastructure improvements.

          No doubt I’m more enthusiastic about stuff like the Pi 400 because it’s closer to my own experience — hitting that sweet spot of people who have enough to be able to consider getting a computer for kids, but not enough to justify paying Apple or even HP prices. And, obviously, which aren’t tied to a self-promoting corporation like the Chromebooks or the inexpensive Amazon tablets.

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