When I was young building a computer was taken to mean soldering chips into place and low level debugging. Now it seems to mean putting a prebuilt computer into a box.
Yes this is another "what is wrong with the kids today" diatribe - another grumpy old man's reflections on how it all went wrong.
A remarkably short time ago if you wanted a computer then you had to build it - it really wasn't an option. Well you could also sometimes pay for someone else to build it for you, but this was considered to be missing most of the fun. Computer kits would come with lots of instructions, lots of chips and a reel of solder. You were expected to put the chips into place on the PCB and solder everything up. Then you had to test the finished assembly which usually then involved looking for places you had made a mess of the PCB by creating a solder bridge between two pins or tracks. For example, a 4K memory board would have at least 32 chips to get right.
This closeness to the hardware really made you understand what was going on. Yes, you were just assembling a PCB but you had to look at the schematic diagram to discover how to do it and getting it to work was a lot easier when you understood how it all worked. In short, it was a great introduction to computer hardware and from there the lower level software. As a result many also designed their own add-on boards or modified existing ones.
The bottom line was that building a computer from a kit taught you enough to build one of your own design from scratch if needs be.
What started this nostalgic recollection of times past was an encounter with Kano.
If you haven't heard about Kano then I need to explain that it is a phenomenally successful Kickstarter project to create a kit that lets you build a computer. This is a really great idea, and despite my musings about how things used to be, it does deserve the support it got but...
Kano is based in turn on the phenomenally successful Raspberry Pi computer. It takes a RPi and puts it in a cardboard box along with a case, keyboard, speaker, power supply, WiFi dongle and some educational material.
All you have to add is a monitor or TV and given the completeness of the kit I'm surprised that that isn't in the box as well!
The full list is:
1 – Kano Books, illustrated and intuitive
2 – Kano OS and Levels on 8GB SD card
3 – DIY Speaker
4 – Raspberry Pi Model B
5 – Kano Keyboard Combo
6 – Custom case
7 – Card mods and stencils
8 – Stickers!
9 – Cables: HDMI*, Mini-USB
10 – Smart power plug (all region pins available)
11 – WiFi powerup
Packaging a RPi to make it easier for very small people or the very lazy to get started is a good idea and now we get to the "but...".
The promotional material goes a long way to establishing the idea that this is building a computer. For example, the promo video below is titled
"How to make a computer in 107 seconds"
Watch it and consider the title:
Is this aiming low?
OK, I know that once the computer is built, sorry connected and switched on, the true learning begins, but Is connecting some cables "building a computer"?
Something has gone really wrong somewhere.
You might now be thinking what alternative is there?
First off I think my real objection is the way Kano makes more of the activity of plugging in some cables than it deserves. The achievement comes not at the end of the 107 second video and the applause you hear there is is undeserved.
It is nice to have a packaged solution to get you to the point where you can start making some experiments and adventures in programming but this is not an end in itself.
My worry is that small people and their parents will think "job done" as soon as the screen lights up. A few minutes playing with the interface, and perhaps a bit of a dig into the first page or so of the instructions, and then it can be all packed away to become a
"do you remember that time you built a computer - you were only ten...."
Most worthwhile things in life are hard and you have to do some work to get the reward. The Kano package, or just the RPi, has the potential to challenge the user, but mostly with software rather than its hardware content.
After discovering that software generally didn't involve burnt fingers and damaged components, I personally was completely won over. Perhaps it isn't that we need to go back to those days where computers could be built from LSI components and microprocessors, although it might be possible - see Learn By Building Your Own Computer, but we need to make software sound like a similar challenge.
Would the Kano have been funded if its tag line had been
Kano: An App Anyone Can Make.