Image credit: Gijsbert Peijs
That’s a good question, and one that you shouldn’t read too much into; that is to say, I don’t have any kids.
Considering the costs of tech these days, and the constant proliferation; update after speed-bump after expansion after paywall, it is reasonable to see people looking for cheaper alternatives. The Raspberry Pi is a great example, it can do many of the same things your typical Mac and PC can do (more if you count robotics). But there is a big difference, the Raspberry Pi (RPi) is fundamentally a Linux board. That is to say, it is a Linux computer, but without some of the typical computer things you would expect. Inside your computer, Mac or PC, is a motherboard, and that is essentially all you get when you buy an RPi. Case, keyboard, mouse, display, wifi, HDD, OS and even power supply are all optional extras (some slightly less optional than others). This is part of the reason the Pi only costs £25-ish. You can buy a kit, from Maplin, for £79, which gives you almost everything you need to get going, but even then, if you’re not particularly tech minded, you’ll still need another computer so you can follow some online how-de-do-dats. That does make it sound like the RPi is very difficult to use, but it’s not, it’s just different.
‘Different’ does not equal ‘Bad’.
Mac users have OS X (Tiger, Leopard, Mavericks, etc.) Windows users have 98, XP, Windows 7 & 8, etc. Linux users have Ubuntu, Red Hat, Raspbian, etc. You’ll often here these Linux OS’s referred to as Distributions, or distros. The RPi comes with Raspbian, which is a special Linux distro designed specifically for the Pi. Having used it for a while, I’d say it is like a cross between Windows 98/XP and OS X Tiger.
If you’ve never used a Linux machine before, you might find it a little daunting. Linux does have an air of nerdyness about it, and this, in my view at least, is in part due to the fact that Linux is a whole computing ecosystem built by people simply because they could do it. But don’t worry, there is just as much Linux help as there are Linux nerds. And there are a lot of Linux nerds.
That’s all very well, but my kids want to do Facebook and have to do homework, but I don’t want to buy them a MacBook
For super basic use, the Pi will be fine. It can do Facebook, and once you install AbiWord, or something similar, you can do word processing too. It doesn’t do Flash, so Facebook games, and things like iPlayer won’t work, but that’s a good thing, right? They’re supposed to be doing homework.
The real upside
Because the Pi is so cheap and so small, it lends itself very well to experimentation. This is something I’ve been trying to get people to do for years. When I worked in IT, probably my most used phrase (apart from ‘have you tried turning it off and on again?’ and ‘please enter your PIN’) was ‘just click it’. The only reason I know so much about computers is because I just click stuff. It is quite hard to actually break a computer these days, but people seem so fearful of their computers. And if the worst does happen, you’ve got backups, right? You are backing up aren’t you?
Because Linux is slightly nerdier that your typical home computer, it fosters a lot of learning without you really knowing that you’re doing it.
Raspbian comes with a programme called Scratch, which is a child friendly programme that teaches the basics of programming. Consider this: if you give your kid a Pi with Scratch as their first computer, they could well go on to work in Robotics, or smartphone App development, or security programming or, well, pretty much anything. Think about all the tech we have today, Cloud storage for the masses, a super-computer in your pocket (that also happens to make phone calls) self-driving cars and giant-killer-death-drones. Now just imagine how fantastical the tech of the future will if all the kids of today learned how to make computers, rather than just how to use computers.