Since acquiring a Raspberry Pi a few weeks ago, I’ve been spreading the good word about this awesome device in my social circle, but lots of people it seems are unsure as to what its importance is. At a Sentinel Project meeting recently, we had a bit of discussion on this, and I thought it would be a good idea to record some of what transpired here.
Data Crunchers vs Social Connectors
Today, people use their computers primarily for Email, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. So much so that our operating systems have been entirely redesigned to put these features at their forefront. However this is divergent from the original connotation of the word ‘computing’ which applies to machines that are good at data crunching as opposed to solving problems of connectivity. With smartphones, we have brought these latter kinds of computers into the era of mobile computing, but not the former. Raspberry Pi helps us do just that.
iPhones, Androids and Blackberries
The three best known smartphone operating systems today all do essentially the same thing. They give us access to email, text messages, BBMs, and other various social media outlets. But they still follow a very simplistic “one app at a time” model, and hardly allow for much complexity in their usage. To be sure, the three do it in a different way from one another, and I like to put these differences like this: iPhones are to Android what Blackberries are to iPhones. Meaning that in the smartphone-ness hierarchy, the order starts at Android and ends at Blackberry. I have a feeling several of you will agree with me about Blackberries, but let’s consider why I am giving the iPhone a shaft here.
iPhones are notoriously closed devices that without jail breaking are owned as much by Apple as the person who paid for one. A key example of how they limit their users can be seen in the challenges that Mozilla faces in getting Firefox to run on iOS. Right now, if you go to the AppStore and search for Firefox, you’ll have to download “Firefox Home”, which is nothing more than a front-end to Firefox that gives you access to your bookmarks, and browsing history. Firefox normally runs on a layout engine called Gecko, but since iOS devices do not allow execution of any 3rd party interpreters, Gecko is not allowed to run on these devices. This excludes iOS from running anything more than apps that Apple approves, and hardly makes them worthy of the title “mobile computers”.
Android devices tend to do better in this department, but still are forced to follow a standard OSGi style activity life cycle.
So what are those amongst us who wish to use mobile computers for untethered data crunching to do? Well, Canonical’s Ubuntu for Android program, which will allow high end Android devices to utilize one core to run Ubuntu Desktop edition is likely to help. But this project is far from being released, and will ultimately apply to expensive devices.
And this is where devices like Raspberry Pi come in. By giving us access to a free and open hardware that costs a pittance of smartphones, and can be run off 4 to 6 AA batteries, users and developers are free to write their applications in an unrestricted environment. The founders of this device created it primarily for use in Education, but what they’ve given the world is a true mobile computer that can do more than just run apps.
This phase of mobile computing is still in its infancy, but there’s nothing quite like an open environment to foster growth. I am sure that soon climate scientists, construction workers, zoologists, educators, rock climbers, geologists and others will find applications in devices like these that smartphones cannot handle. The world is already looking forward to an Arm processor revolution, but devices like Raspberry Pi will ensure that there will also be an application revolution for such devices.
For organizations like the Sentinel Project which seek the use of technology to solve humanitarian problems, Raspberry Pi is a boon.