Le’go My Linux

I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for the Linux computer operating system. It’s the fact that it is free and constantly improving and has such far reaching possibilities. It’s the only complex programming system that lets me fall back to the earliest days of my computing experience three decades ago. An option to CPM and then DOS was compiling Slackware Linux.

The hacker controller computers like the Basic Stamp and Propeller from Parallax (and all other similar (PIC) types) are also right there in my favorites zone. They don’t have a large non-propriety open source OS but by their otherwise open nature encourage writing code.

I am using a standard PC hardware desktop computer running Linux right now for writing this. The cost of a low powered desktop is not so high these days. But a modern PC desktop is much removed from the hardware access and understanding of the early simple computers. I think the programming romance of those early computers has been lost. I started writing code because essentially there was no commercial software available. That early attraction encouraged us new users to experience the challenge of writing code simply to enable these new machines to do simple things.

Non computer enthusiasts would say, “Yeah that’s nice but what does it do?” when I showed off my new (what to them was a) toy. The answer was, “whatever I tell it to do!” My job then was to create useful demo programs in assembly language. In less than a year I was doing real “high level” programming on my Imsai 8080 after Palo Alto Tiny BASIC (2 kilobytes) was published. I am being a bit facetious  but it was a step up from assembly.

Today there is a new piece of hardware that is caching on in a very big way. It’s apparent many folks want to be working with low cost minimalist hardware systems and have complete freedom in creating useful programming at higher level than assembly or low level interpreter. However low level programming is not excluded by any means.

Enter the Raspberry Pi. The inexpensive hardware is taking advantage of some VLIC and SLSI (Very powerful computer chips) to provide wonderful graphics and other I/O ability not dreamed of 30 years ago. This low cost hardware and free Linux high level operating system now provides a means for anyone to have low cost very basic (appearing) hardware that can be instructed with equally free programming languages to do very complex and useful computing tasks.

This new device is not a replacement for the dual processor 64 bit Linux machine I am using at the moment. The Raspberry Pi has limitations such as a small memory and a single thread CPU. But limitations are not a negative. A great feature is the powerful (graphics) GPU. It is what it is, a frame within which to work. A big feature of limiting memory is that it is very low power needing only a safe 5 volts and a few hundred milliamps to operate in its designed form.

The beauty of this device is it’s low cost and it’s open bare bones appearance. It begs and I think screams to be exploited to be played with and be pushed to do things in a way that no “big box” computer encourages. It is a hacker’s computer designed to encourage both young students and old hacks to explore where they would never go with a “do not break” expensive homework or social network machine.

Running a high level Linux OS means a lot of the hardware control already works. Initial start up presents the user with a Linux text mode log in prompt. High quality graphics are available with a simple start x command. Many programming languages are available for free.

The Internet reveals many hardware and software applications are being demonstrated using the Raspberry Pi. It’s OK to dedicate a $35 computer to a single task. That’s called embedded computing which today is a far wider use of computer power than a home PC. There is far more uses for Linux and tiny special purpose computers, than owning the fastest network gaming machine. Writing personal code is also a path to an ever growing career path in computer science enhanced by self motivated hands on experience.

The hardware is not perfect for everything, but it is here and it works and it is being made in a volume that creates a core standard. It can be improved and added to. Improvement is desired and Raspberry Pi has provision to make it easy to expand the hardware capabilities. Add only what is needed. Only imagination sets the limit. It’s like creating applications with a big box of Lego®, there is no limit.

Robotics and autonomous control (Mars Rover) are cutting edge occupations. I’ve already said, having a $35 Linux computer with which to develop personal applications will give a young student a running start with a great career. Food for thought. It’s reported many developing nations already realize this advantage.

The little Raspberry Pi computer was designed for exactly this educational purpose. There is presently a world wide demand (and shortage) of these computers for education but quantities in the millions will be made. There is also a huge demand for the machine for recreational (hobby) and embedded control purposes I have described. It is far from the first or only hardware of this type but with its superior video and other I/O and tying it in with a great free Linux OS, it has hit a huge pent up demand for a learning tool with powerful graphics and network connectivity.

Every man, woman, and child with a developing interest in computer programming needs to own or have free access to a computer like Raspberry Pi. There is a great support network developing and it will gain world status as a milestone life changer for the next generation of programmers who can do far more than just operate a computer appliance. The open standard of Linux, not Win8 or OSX is making it happen. However, the skills developed are portable. It will open the door for abilities needed in any other OS or programming environment. The world wins.