Virtual Consumer May-Jun 2012

Developing trend

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine May-Jun 2012

It feels quite like the old days. Big media excitement about a low-cost computer aimed at school children and developed by clever people in Cambridge. Ministers talking about the need for schools to teach programming using the new machines. And a new wave of software developers and micro-businesses meeting the burgeoning consumer demand for games and software.

You have to be old enough to remember the explosion of interest in computers in the early 1980s to see the similarities. But the new programming revolution was not foreseen and it’s worth seeing how it has come about.

The advent of the microcomputer in the 1970s meant that computers ceased to be big and expensive and began appearing on desks and in homes. This led to a widespread conviction that the next generation must learn how to use them. In the UK there was a drive to make sure that schools had enough computers and the BBC Micro was developed in Cambridge, specifically for use in schools.

The availability of cheap computers was not matched by software to run on them. This had two results: a gold rush of new small businesses writing games and other software; and a general belief that learning to use the new machines meant learning to program. Schoolchildren from primary age upwards were encouraged to write programs in languages like LOGO and BASIC. It was hard to make the computers do exciting visual things, but a generation nevertheless felt empowered and went on to create a thriving UK games industry.

With time educationalists argued that it really wasn’t necessary for everyone to learn how to program – just a few technicians. So schools started teaching IT instead – how to use a word processor or make a PowerPoint presentation. Microcomputer software became more complex. Games needed big development budgets and the little games producer gradually disappeared. Meanwhile the number of people coming out of college or university with programming skills dwindled, leading to a skills crisis.

So what happened to change all this?

One big driver has been the arrival of the smartphone App, a small, cheap program that does just one thing, and often can be written by one person. While sales of Sony and Nintendo hand-held consoles with their big-budget games have slowed, Smartphones have created a new market for quirky little games that you carry in your pocket – a celebrated example being Angry Birds.

Another change has been the arrival of new stripped-down computers like the Arduino and now the Raspberry Pi. These are cheap enough to experiment with: where Windows computers available to children in schools have been increasingly locked down by paranoid IT administrations, with a Raspberry Pi you have access right to the heart of the machine. What you do with it is really only limited by your skill and imagination.

Just like the old days.