Raspberry Pi computers are a go-to solution for home theaters, NAS devices, and other personal projects . But the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s latest products and partnerships have left DIY-ers scratching their heads. Why would the Pi Foundation release a pre-assembled computer kit, or partner with Microsoft to bring new software to Raspbian OS? The answer is simple—Raspberry Pi exists to help kids and adults learn about computing. It isn’t just a tool for hobbyists and geeks.
Update, 3/14/22: Verified content and links still good.
At its core, the Raspberry Pi is an educational tool manufactured by the Raspberry Pi Foundation—a charity. It’s the spiritual successor to devices like the BBC Micro, which empowered public school teachers to introduce students to computing and programming at a time when very few families owned a home computer.
Computers are a lot more common now than they were in the ’80s, but modern devices, operating systems, and software present few opportunities to tinker with computer hardware or learn about computing and programming. Today’s laptops, desktops, tablets, and phones are rarely user-serviceable, with GUI-driven operating systems and company-owned closed-source software. It doesn’t help that schools have a limited budget, so cracking open, modifying, and potentially breaking expensive desktop computers is a big no-no.
But the Raspberry Pi is different. It’s small, cheap, and features common components like USB and Ethernet. It runs Linux and comes with the Pi Foundation’s Raspbian OS, which is preloaded with coding tools and requires use of the terminal for some basic functionality. Most importantly, the Raspberry Pi has a set of GPIO (general purpose input/output) pins, which make practical coding projects with LEDs, cameras, robots, and other accessories intuitive, hands-on, and exciting for kids.
Schools can purchase Raspberry Pis for computer science courses or after school programs, but the Raspberry Pi Foundation makes a point of donating Pi computers and learning resources to schools for free . That is, after all, the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s mission. But Pi computers aren’t just an at-school learning tool, kids and adults also participate in community-lead Raspberry Jam events to share computing knowledge and show off cool projects. Like the popular Kano and Piper computer kits, Raspberry Pis also provide learning opportunities at home (with a little help from an adult).
Some of the Raspberry Pi foundation’s recent endeavors, like the preassembled Pi 400 computer and a collaboration to bring Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code to Raspbian, have led some enthusiasts to question where the charity’s priorities lie. The Pi 400 computer doesn’t appeal to popular home theater or robotics projects, and while Visual Studio Code is both intuitive and open-source, Pi enthusiasts worry that the big bad Microsoft corporation will “track” Pi users who update their software.
That’s due to the fac that after a recent repo addition, running the
sudo apt update command automatically pings developers, including Microsoft, to ask for the latest software packages, which companies could theoretically use for targeted advertising. But those fears are unfounded, all the check does is look for updates to current packages, like Visual Code. “Check for updates” isn’t the same as advertising.
When Pi enthusiasts complain about these endeavors, they’re missing the plot. The Raspberry Pi is, above all else, a tool that makes computing and programming more accessible to everyone. Sometimes that means making decisions that empower or attract young people, not adult hobbyists.
Of course, enthusiasts are essential to the Pi Foundation’s goals. Sales of the Raspberry Pi drive the charity’s educational endeavors, and people who post their Pi projects on YouTube or Instructables inspire young people to learn about computing outside and inside the classroom.
It isn’t unreasonable for hobbyists to ask for new features or products, but it’s also important to acknowledge that Pi Foundation is an education-oriented charity. Something that may seem like a misstep to a Pi enthusiast could change a kid’s life for the better, and demanding that the Pi Foundation only move in one direction goes against its mission to make computing accessible for everyone.
Remote learning and telecommuting are more important now than ever before, yet there’s an astonishing lack of cheap computers on the market. Finding a reliable Windows computer for under $300 is nearly impossible, and even the humble Chromebook costs at least $100.
Since its inception, the Raspberry Pi has been a very simple device, perfect for educational exercises and small projects, but not all that useful for web browsing and other common, practical applications. In a pinch, the Raspberry Pi could stand in for a laptop or desktop computer, but you’d be hard pressed to call it a reliable desktop replacement.
But that’s changed in the last few years. Chromium became the default Raspbian web browser in 2016, solving web-compatibility issues that plagued the old Epiphany browser. The Raspberry Pi 4, released in 2019, was (arguably) the first Pi computer to offer a reliable browsing experience, and the Pi Foundation explicitly advertised it as a 4K-ready, desktop-capable computer.
The recent Pi 400 computer takes things a step further. Like Like Atari or Commodore computers from the 80s, the Raspberry Pi 400 is a full computer system tucked inside a keyboard. It’s preassembled and comes with Raspbain preinstalled, so you can just plug it into a TV or monitor and start browsing the internet. In a way, the Pi 400 is the Pi Foundation’s first truly accessible computer, as it’s incredibly cost effective ($100 for the bundle, or $70 if you don’t need the cables), easy to set up, and powerful enough for web browsing, streaming, rudimentary photo editing, and other everyday tasks.
Because the Pi Foundation’s goal is to teach people about computers and programming, it only makes sense to make the Pi as accessible and useful as possible. The Raspberry Pi could become a true all-purpose computer in the near future, with a sub-$100 price tag that will appeal to everyone, not just hobbyists and teachers.