bbc-microbit
Technology Planning and Analysis

BBC's micro:bit: Turning on the future, old school style

We all remember our first time. With me, it was at age 16, alone in my bedroom on a cold October night. I’d thought of nothing else at school all day but the anonymous brown package waiting for me at home. It was nothing I could explain to my parents; in truth, the burning, obsessive passion I felt was inexplicable even to myself. I just knew I wanted it, needed it, and now - I would have it.

First, though, I had to make it. Just a poor boy, I couldn’t afford a ready-made Sinclair ZX81: it had to be the kit. I plugged in my soldering iron, ripped open the box, greedily spilled the glittering components across the desk, and started a journey I’m still on today.

My own son - well, his teenage obsessions were his own affair. A wise parent does not pry too deeply into any manga collection not their own. But although he had the benefit of 20 extra years of Moore’s Law that surrounded him with video games, mobile phones and posh computers, his digital world was more Auto Tuned boyband than punk. My school thought computing was engineering, both scary and futuristic: his school thought computing was secretarial work, Excel spreadsheets and Word proficiency. It was as exciting to him as rice pudding. Sure, he wanted to be a videogame programmer, but there was no connection between the flashy magic on his Sega and the ditch water-dull Windows anaesthetic he got given at school.

Which is why the Raspberry Pi was developed, to strip back computing to its naked, fascinating core, and why the BBC is going even further, reprising its 1982 BBC Micro creation role with its new micro:bit. It doesn’t look much, and it doesn’t do much: mostly, it just turns tiny red lights on. When a million Year 7 schoolkids get their tiny, shiny, bare-board jewel and Bluetooth it to their smartphones, it won’t be the first - or the tenth, or the hundredth - computer they’ve seen. But it will be the first that has no secrets. The first that says to them “If this, then that. One or zero. Sense, decide, act, a million times a second. You’re in control.”

The idea isn’t to create a million programmers. That never happened with the million ZX81s, or the million ZX Spectrums, or the million original BBC Micros. But among the millions who brush against the deep magic of computing laid bare, then or now, some will be hooked on more than just distraction. There’s nothing as powerful as a childhood obsession that kicks open a door. And to catch that obsession, you have to be exposed to the ideas.

There has been grumbling that the micro:bit is too simple. That it’s no Raspberry Pi running full-fat Linux and generating a full high-definition video display. That it’s a Model T Ford in a world of jetpacks. The same arguments were made against the very first home computers, which were derided as pointless toys by those who worked with the real hardware, the minis and mainframes that ran real programs in real businesses.

Those people never sat in front of a 12-inch black-and-white telly at 2am on a cold October night and worked out how to cram a drawing program into six lines of BASIC and 1K of memory. They won’t be the kid who suddenly gets the ‘aha’ moment that means her digital dice program really does return a random result every time she shakes her micro:bit - and, who knows, 15 years later discovers a computational proof for a new crypto algorithm that keeps online secrets better than anything before it.

Once you start someone on a path they want to follow, you’ve done the hard bit. They’ll do the rest. They’ll find the next step. No, the BBC micro:bit isn’t the technological equivalent of those first educational computers, and the environment about it is infinitely richer, but it is needed to do the same job: to show the simplicity at the heart of the digital world that is otherwise completely lost. 

Sometimes, all you need to do is to turn a light on.

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Rupert Goodwins

Rupert Goodwins expected to be an engineer, but journalism happened. As an engineer, he worked in defence, for Sinclair Research and Amstrad, in startups and for himself. First appearing in print in 1982 and online in 1984,  he's written about all aspects of technology in business for most of the UK nationals and tech magazines, and was most recently editor of ZDNet UK. Tries to solve more problems... See More

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