BBC Micro:Bit Finally Ships to 1 Million For Free
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Tuesday, 22 March 2016

In the UK the BBC has started its late shipment of its pocket computer the Micro:bit to all Year 7 school children. This is an impressive gesture. But why? And will its late arrival spoil the plan?

The Micro:bit is an interesting piece of hardware. It measures 4 cm x 5 cm and doesn't come with a case, keyboard, mouse or display. The processor is an ARM Cortex M0 with a 16MB memory and Flash storage.



The rest of the spec is interesting: 

  • 25 red LEDs arranged in a 5x5 grid on the back
  • 2 programmable buttons 
  • On-board accelerometer
  • Built-in magnetometer
  • Bluetooth LE
  • 3 AtoD convertors
  • 3 Input and Output (I/O) "rings" to connect the micro:bit to devices or sensors using crocodile clips or 4 mm banana plugs 
  • Micro USB connector for power
  • Separate connector for battery pack that needs 2 AA batteries 

You might be thinking at this point that as we have the Raspberry Pi Zero selling for $5 who needs another low-cost competitor, but this would be missing the point. The Pi Zero is great for hackers wanting to build complete IoT devices, but it has a fairly high barrier to getting started. The Micro:bit may be less capable, but it has a set of built-in sensors and output devices that makes it possible to do clever things without having to add anything at all. 

In addition, it might well not be the hardware that is so important. The Pi and most other computers of the same type are Linux systems that require a keyboard, screen and mouse. While there are simple ways of using them - like Scratch - it is easy to get lost on the way to finding them. The Micro:bit on the other hand is programmed via a website that makes it very easy to find your way. You plug it into your computer, browse to the Micro:bit website, and start coding. You can select from a number of drag-and-drop coding environments and languages that provide the same sort of experience as Scratch. You can also graduate to a full "written" language because there is also a copy of MicroPython on the site. 

The idea is that the easy start that graphical languages provide, together with the I/O capabilities of a standard Micro:bit, will allow children to discover the device and its possibilities very quickly. The motivation will then carry them on to learn more and more about programming until they eventually graduate to MicroPython, JavaScript or whatever the most "rocket science" language offered ends up being. As the Micro:bit site says:

"Be a tech pro of the future with the BBC micro:bit. The digital world is your oyster."

The idea is to breed some computer geniuses. But, have we already lost a lot of the impetus of the scheme?

The whole saga has been spurred on by the huge success of the BBC Micro back in the early 1980s. The BBC didn't give the computer away, but it did support it and lots of the UK's current computer people look back fondly on those golden years spent locked up with a machine that didn't have the computing power of a modern mobile phone. It is interesting to note that the Micro:bit is claimed to be 18 times faster than the BBC Micro! This may be all true but history has a way of not repeating itself when you try to make it do so. 

The attitude seems to be that if it worked once it can work again. The same sort of reasoning was behind the design and launch of the Raspberry Pi and at the time I was at a loss to explain why the solution to the software crisis was more hardware, especially in a world where we are awash with computing devices. However, I was wrong and the Raspberry Pi has been, and is, a huge success. It seems we do have a need for really cheap and reasonably capable hardware for jobs like media servers, sensors and so on and being so cheap even gives them a role in education. 

So the Micro:bit will be a huge success? 

Who knows. What is clear is that it is very late. After being promised for early in the school year it is now shipping at end of the spring term and this isn't going to make it a hit with teachers. In fact it is likely that they wont alter their lesson plans to incorporate it. It isn't even clear if the devices will be handed out if they haven't had time to teach the 12-year-olds how to use them properly. The children who do receive them don't have to give them back. so another batch will be needed next year to keep the ball rolling. 

Some time soon after launch, the hardware and much of the software is going to be open sourced and handed over to a non-profit to keep it all running. What is clear is that you probably shouldn't be thinking of launching your own startup to make a small cheap computer unless you have something like the BBC to back you.   

My guess is that after the initial novelty wears off there are going to be a lot of Micro:bits in bins or perhaps on sale on eBay. If you don't have a small person to borrow a Micro:bit off then they will be available for sale soon - price yet to be announced.

As long as they are cheap enough then there are lots of more general uses they could be put to.

It will be interesting to see if the Micro:bit has enough going for it to be attractive to 12-year-olds. In the BBC Micro  days it was the lure of computer games that kept children typing. Now it seems it is IoT that is supposed to be the big draw. Will this age group be seduced by flashing LEDs, accelerometers and AtoD converters - I hope so. 


More Information

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 BBC Micro Bit Delay - A Chance For CodeBug? 

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BBC Giving Away 1 Million Microcomputers       

CHIP - $9 Computer To Beat Pi & Arduino

Teach Code In School - Before It's Too Late! 

UK Micros of the 1980s 

Four Generations - Video of BBC Micro 



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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 22 March 2016 )