Software Development investigate

Wanted: A BBC Micro for the 21st century

Why we need a modern-day successor to the classic eight-bit BBC Micro to inspire the next generation of programmers.

Since the heyday of the BBC Micro, the teaching of IT in the UK is felt by most to have declined significantly.

The UK needs a 21st century successor to the BBC Micro to inspire the next generation of computer programmers, according to a new report.

The BBC's Computer Literacy Project of the 1980s - which created the much-loved BBC Micro computer - was hugely influential in creating a generation of programmers and spurring on high-tech businesses in the UK.

The BBC Micro was a home computer used widely in schools for teaching programming. More than 1.5 million of the eight-bit computers were sold before it was discontinued in 1994, against an initial prediction of 12,000.

As well as inspiring a generation - and leading to the creation of classic games such as Elite - the report The Legacy of the BBC Micro, from innovation foundation Nesta and the Science Museum, points to the continuing economic benefits of the project. For example, the founders of chip design specialist ARM include many of the team who created the BBC Micro.

However, since the heyday of the BBC Micro, the teaching of IT in the UK is felt by most to have declined significantly to the point where it is mostly about teaching pupils to use office applications, with little emphasis on creativity.

And the report said that while concerns about the absence of creative computing in the classrooms has resulted in a series of initiatives, none of these matches the scale, aspiration or comprehensive approach of the original BBC Micro project.

Report author Tilly Blyth said the original Computer Literacy Project closed the gap between computers and people, "bootstrapping our knowledge economy". She said without a similar new project, "We risk losing a generation of creative programmers, potential entrepreneurs and citizens skilled up for the digital age".

While innovations such as the Raspberry Pi can help fill the gap, the report said government, industry and broadcasters all have a role to play in promoting creative computing in the UK.

What are your memories of the BBC Micro? What do you think would be a 21st century equivalent?

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

29 comments
NZJester
NZJester

From what I have read the little Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV. It was designed to help inspire children and schools to get creative again. It is meant to be "A BBC Micro for the 21st century" The website says the Model A has 256Mb RAM, one USB port and no Ethernet (network connection) while the Model B has 256Mb RAM, 2 USB port and an Ethernet port. OS options for it are apparently Fedora, Debian and ArchLinux booting from a SD card, with Debian the recommended OS If you go to http://www.raspberrypi.org/about you can read more about the idea behind it. It's made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK registered charity (Registration Number 1129409)

scarlett55
scarlett55

"However, since the heyday of the BBC Micro, the teaching of IT in the UK is felt by most to have declined significantly to the point where it is mostly about teaching pupils to use office applications, with little emphasis on creativity." I expect you're probably right about this Steve, just as much here in Australia as in the UK. But there are still some of us who have the inclination and, luckily for me in my case, the freedom to teach IT more creatively. I teach IT in a Catholic primary school, kids aged 5 to 12. Whilst I am required to give them a basic introduction to the Office suite, I still have plenty of time left to do much more fun and interesting stuff that will engage kids and teach them a range of computer concepts, not just proprietary software programmes. I use things like Google Sketchup, Scratch, Pivot, and a range of Photo-editing programmes. The kids love them, and many of them are remarkably skilled in using these programmes by the time they leave the school. I also teach HTML code to the grade 5 & 6 students, which always goes the same way - they start by throwing their hands in the air and saying they can't do it, it's too hard, but it never takes long for the large majority of them to catch on and really run with it. They create their own web sites and publish them to our school intranet. They love seeing the end result and browsing each other's sites. Just thought you might like to hear about one teacher who still does "creative." :))

A.C
A.C

Three little words, uttered by an idiot.... Do we need another BBC micro.. probably not.. we just need a working education system that's not aimed purely at throwing out pass marks and improving the stats, more about learning. The RasPi and similar low cost (but suprising punchy) little Arm based boards are ideal as an alternative to a full blown PC and show that simple innovation works. Computing without learning the real ins and outs is like biology without the disection.. no fun at all.

laurenceg
laurenceg

Yes the BBC micro was marvellous for home and school but it can be given just as much credit elsewhere. They were also marvellous for industry. In my case it enabled me to break the hold the non scientist software guys had over the scientific control and program applications needed where I worked in a research department. My work was accepted soon enough but then the software guys promptly switched to Apple IIes because they could plug in interface cards. Anyway, I had made my mark and gained independence for the good. The problem we have in schools now is that anything like knowing how to fry a chip properly is classed as science. Once the chip has been fried the pupil gets a tick in the box because they know some science. I know some pretty smart computer people since I live near Cambridge University. The first thing I see in their work are fantastic algorithms based on a solid ability to code. The coding seems to be something they just do to support their maths. When I first got hold of a BBC micro my maths ability improved very quickly. The stuff that I had learned at school came to life. My point is that the UK needs to do two things, learn that frying chips at home is not science and get the standard of maths teaching back to where it was forty years ago. Using a modern small computer will then just drop into place for today's pupils. I take the point previously made comparing eclipse with java to apps. The politically correct mafia will cut my throat for this one but some people will always be MS office users and others will aspire to greater programming feats. The latter will not have much problem with eclipse and java. Each to their own. Cheap pcs are here already.

terry
terry

Now retired, I spent many years looking for the education authorities to put the computer back into A level Computing. The youngsters found it boring doing too much "Business" in the course. I have just heard that the new Principal at the 6th form college I worked in is making the computing staff redundant as he doesn't see the need for computing. Most of the students I came across would have loved to do something constructive and innovative but the powers that be just want them to pass!! My son learned on a BBC. BeeBug magazine and all, and now has a very good job in the industry.

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

Remembering how the major applications (Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Database, etc.) for the BBC Micro were in ROM set me thinking. If software companies supplied their applications (or even OSs) on read-only SD cards which had uncopyable sections, piracy would be very difficult, "installation" would be a thing of the past and with the cost of today's SD card readers, a PC could be equipped with a dozen or more. Added slots could be available via USB add-on units. We could forget stupidities like "the registry", invented by Microsoft to help reduce piracy and yet creating a single point of failure - something I, as a trained electronic engineer (turned software developer), had always been encouraged to avoid.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

...to provide software that would run on current machines and systematically teach programming -- first the basics, then application development for particular languages and/or environments.

Rick-J
Rick-J

Surely the best way to engage today's youngsters in programming would be to focus on development of apps for phones and tablets? I'm sure the idea of creating their own app for their phone would have a lot of appeal, and for many students would be more relevant than, for example, playing with the naked electronics of a Pi. A coordinated programme as was set up with the BBC micro is also an important part, but the goals should still engage the students. Add the fact that the tablet paradigm is almost certain to replace the current desktop paradigm by the time today's kids leave school, it would keep teaching as up to date as possible. Currently, to program Android, you need to learn a fairly complex IDE (Eclipse) running on a standard PC - either Windows or Linux. That's in addition to learning Java itself! I wonder if a stripped down Eclipse running on a dedicated build of Linux as a kind-of "development appliance" is feasible? You'd still need cheap PCs to run it on, but they would just be the means to an end.

Dave51
Dave51

Still got my Beeb, found it up in the loft a few weeks ago with all the ROMs and books, printers and a re-inker! eprom programmer etc. What fun its was all those years ago...

Dr. Fowler
Dr. Fowler

Resounding agreement. I purchased a DRAGON, billed as the Hong Kong clone of the BBC Computer, and found it superior to anything I could get elsewhere, providing an optimality of capability and cost. Anything more capable cost five or more times more and anything similar in price was a relative rock. It convinced me that the micro was going to replace the macro (main frame) and has been a cherished memory of the start of excellence since. By 1984 I had become constrained and sprang for an IBM PC and have not stopped expanding since. Definitely a Model T of the age cohort for personal technological development.

cybershooters
cybershooters

I know way more about IT than anyone I went to school with, the reason why is because I had a home computer that I programmed, or several actually, Commodore 64 although I used to find the ill-fated MSX computers were the best for home computing. I used to fix the computers in the computer room at school, I knew more about it than the teachers did. I don't think it's so much about the hardware, I'm sure there must be some decent intro to programming things out there, the problem now is that programming is so fragmented, what do you introduce them to exactly? I think really what is needed is a programming language for beginners that caught be taught in school but would be useful for learning other more specific coding techniques later on.

richard.s
richard.s

From what I remember, some vocal but misguided parents - and probably politicians along with the usual business "leaders" - forced schools to change to "office standard" IBM PCs. These parents simply wanted their children taught to operate the PCs that they'd find in the office, rather than to be educated about computing or problem solving. So instead of education in the principles and preparation for life-long learning; children were trained to type, to operate MS Word, and possibly to operate MS Excel & Powerpoint. Because these children were trained only to operate one particular version of the Office programs from only one particular manufacturer, they seem to require re-training each time something changes: So we hear about the "impossibly high cost" of eg. switching to use Libre Office. Also, "office standard" IBM PCs were cheaper to buy; but schools quickly found that they were more expensive to maintain and required frequent upgrades. This was just another aspect of the continuing confusion about the mythical "skills shortages" and the true role of "education" rather than "training." How sad that many children now view mobile phones as "fun" but computers as "boring."

neil.haughton
neil.haughton

Beagleboard and Pi aren't the same thing as the BBC Micro (although the Pi is getting there). The BBC Micro only needed a screen to enable you to get started, and it looked like a computer and was easy to get to grips with. An easy lead-in is vital to capture imaginations - and a steep price can often make the desire to have it that much greater. A 25 GBP board could be a 5 minute wonder. A 200 GBP machine (1980s prices!) demands you spend some time with it and show it off, just because of the cost! Price increases the desire to have - Apple aren't stupid, you know. Badly designed? In what way? Claims like this (with 30 years of hindsight to play with) could use some substantiation, methinks. And so what? The PC is, by many criteria, 'badly designed', as is Windows (ask Sir C.S. what he thinks of them. On second thoughts- don't get him started!) and yet look how successful they have been in making computing ubiquitous But it was not the machine per se that was important, it was the project: the coordination of education, mass media and equipment that lit the spark. And that's what is lacking now. Too many kids look at the technical miracles that are their smartphone, PC, iPad and so on and think, "yeah, whatever!" . Sadly our education system is now teaching kids that computers are household or personal appliances that you just need to know how to use - like the fridge. That's what needs to be addressed, for our own sakes. I actually had an Acorn Atom (I still have it), the BBC Micro's predecessor, and with its fast Basic interpreter with inline Assembler, accessible hardware, manuals complete with circuit diagrams and so on, it was brilliant in sucking me into learning to programme, as was the Z81 before it, and I have to say that in spite of all their obvious limitations I think I was a lot more productive on them as a programmer than I have ever been on PC, Windows, .Net and so on. Certainly more satisfied. Looking back, it seems I had far less to fight against to get things done.

seanakers
seanakers

extremely well designed with many useful i/o ports, an excellent programming environment, a proper operating system, a proper keyboard and very inspiring. I have the BBC Micro to thank for my career in software development. I learned loads from the one I had outside of school (which only had 1 Spectrum and an RM 380z, no BBCs). Of my friends of that period, the BBC owners mostly ended up in software/IT, owners of Speccys and C64s ended up not being in software/IT. It was a bit expensive though.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

badly designed, over priced and seriously unpopular outside of schools who were pretty much dragooned into buying it. Plenty of examples of that sort of success still available now, no need to exhume this one.

bboyd
bboyd

40$ computer booting into a development system.

mpeters
mpeters

Why is it that education has to keep going off at a tangent from the rest of the world. Why do we need to have another computer developed when almost every pupil has one in their hand at home or at school. Phones, PCs Smartphones are all far more powerful than the BBC micro and there are programing languages common to all - Java, C, C++ etc.We used BBC micros because there was no other choice. However that experience got me into the software development industry where I have been for the last 20 years.It is the way that education is run today that needs fixing/developing. Not yet another piece of proprietary hardware.

Tavis
Tavis

I agree that developing native apps for phones might be popular among some, but it would still be exclusive. Perhaps simply teaching web development along with web design, graphic design and writing and communication skills in teams would give pupils the most widely-applicable range of skills (including soft skills like teamwork which will be required for code review and so on). And you class gallery should still be accessible and working long after the pupils have left.

IndieKid
IndieKid

If I was 13 again I'd be looking at writing iOS apps for me and my friends, I think.. The BBC was a good machine as others have said (great basic, sound, expandability, built-in assembler, real monitors and disk drives!!) but you had to be a teacher's kid to get your hands on one due to the price. Oh, and the graphics were measly in spite of the 80 column display. That's why a lot more of us had Spectrums.

s-f
s-f

One of the most educational movements I have seen lately is the number of folks who work on custom RoMs and Kernels for Cells... How to unlock and flash a phone, how to test and document results of beta RoMs, how to script for workarounds, how to compile, how to merge code, how to write code... Message boards such as XDA have take the place of the magazines like Compute! or ZX81 User or even Popular Electronics...

ozchorlton
ozchorlton

The Dragon was Welsh, (hence the name Dragon - look at the Welsh flag). I know, I had one, (Dragon 32). I was a competitor to the BBC, not a clone, and ran the same software, as the pc that Tandy, (Radio Shack, in the USA), were then selling.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I wasn't comparing to my I7 matey. I was there... ZX 81, Commodore 129 MemoTech 512, Dragon 32. BBC, badly designed is an impression I've carried with me from those times, over priced in inarguable, when you look at the kit, it's capabaility and particulalry the software available for it.

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

I must refute Tony Hopkinson's comment of the BBC Micro being badly designed. It had many attributes that computers of today would do well to emulate, for example: 1) Instant boot up - because the operating system was in ROM. So it couldn't be corrupted/infected and it occupied no RAM. 2) Hardware input/output built in and controllable from the built-in BASIC interpreter 3) Software available in ROM (simple to plug in) and instantly switchable - up to 4 applications inside the basic computer. No complicated installation procedure to go through. Also piracy was difficult - unless you had access to a PROM programmer - not an everyday device. 4) Second processor option - if you wanted more power you could buy a second processor and attach it to the main computer by a high speed link. 5) BASIC language included OS calls, Assembler and sophisticated graphics commands including FILL which would fill any outline shape (including irregular hand drawn shapes) with a colour - try that in Visual Basic - it's not available. 6) Hardware switchable colour palette - great for animations. It enabled you to do things you can't easily do with today's graphic cards. 7) Teletext mode 8) Up to 80 columns of text on the screen - rare in home computers in the '80s I was so impressed with the design of the BBC Micro that when I learned of the new ARM chip I got a job working for Acorn (who designed the BBC Micro) and was involved in the development of the first ARM-based desktop computer, at the time (1987) the fastest desktop computer in the world. Great times!

proxy_squid
proxy_squid

Thats what I thought, ordered one too, waiting for it to arrive :)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

And given the recent anouncement by Schmit and Teach First.. 102 UK schools could be getting trained teachers and with budgets to put Pi on every student's plate.

RichardRussell
RichardRussell

Tony Hopkinson says that his "impression" is that the BBC Micro was badly designed. I have the circuit diagram in front of me as I type, so if it's the hardware he's criticising I would like chapter and verse on precisely what the weaknesses are supposed to be. If it's the firmware, I know quite a bit about that too so again I'd be interested in the details of the criticism. Tony also asserts that it is "inarguable" that the BBC Micro was overpriced. Well I, for one, do argue! I was a member of the BBC team who had the unenviable task of responding to Acorn's request to increase the price of the Model A from the original ??235 to ??299. The increase was, reluctantly, agreed only after we were convinced it was unavoidable if Acorn were to remain solvent. Had Tony said it was 'overspecified' rather than 'overpriced' that would have been harder to argue with, since it's a subjective judgement. The main reason why the BBC Micro was relatively expensive was that the specification which the BBC required it to meet was quite tough. Things like teletext, a 'proper' keyboard, PAL-coded baseband video and UHF output, expandability etc. all added significantly to the complexity and hence the cost. But it was those very same things that resulted in the Beeb's versatility and to a large extent its success. A few BBC Micros are still in use today in industry (perhaps worryingly!).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

All 8 bit micros booted up from ROM,external drives, if you could get one cost as much if not more than the machine If the machine used memory mapped addressing for ports, then Poke and Peek did the job. Dragon and Spectrum both had ROM/Extension ports. They all had built in basic interpreters. C128 and the MTX512 came with two processors. Both had 80 column graphics. In fact if you knew a bit you could use the graphics chips for storage... MTX 512 had a built in assembler Graphics were all wildly different between these machines, as for hardware pallete, that's a total red herring. Fill command, you'd have learnt alot more if you wrote your own... I remember a lot of great times too, BBC had naff all to do with itb though. And above all you should remember my point of view is that ofan user of the machine. What you designed it for, with and why is completely and totally irrelevant from my perspective. In fact it's that blindness that left teh BBC needing a government monopoly in education in order to remain commericially viable against it's competitors.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

What are you comparing it to though. I'm talking spectrum, C64, Dragon32. The latter two had a proper keyboared. Spectrum's rubber effort was a simple cost decision, if anything technicaly it was morre complex than a standard keyboard. Admittedly they too were a bit weird and wonderful in places, but for the tasks they were used for they didn't do bad, and they were half the price. Titles for both machines available retail easily outstripped those available for the BBC as well. As far as I'm concerned it's success was the effective monopoly it had in education, without that it would have died on it's arse competing with the C64 and the Spectrum. Maybe I'm wrong, all I can say is I never owned one, used one a handful of times. started learning computing at age 13 and never stopped. So the OPs contention that we need a new BBC, is self evident bollocks. The real problem is you could do some cool stuff in your basement, all by yourself. Waht kids call cool now requires a 1,000,000 budget and a team of 30. Manic miner vs Call of Duty or windows 8 versus CP/M is the real issue.