Accessible computing for all ages
Raspberry Pi has achieved phenomenal success, introducing an affordable computer that is built to encourage programming and experimentation. It was intended to provide similar inspiration to that which the BBC Micro did for a generation of future programmers in the 1980s, teaching them the coding skills they would need in the process. Britain has a proud computing history, giving the world the first programmer, Ada Lovelace, the first computer, Charles Babbage’s difference engine, and the first computer scientist, Alan Turing. The Raspberry Pi was created as a solution to the fear that this tradition was in danger.
Since launch in Spring 2012, over 2 million Raspberry Pi’s have been shipped, dwarfing the 10 thousand that were initially anticipated. But many of these have gone to experienced programmers, spawning many unusual uses such as using the Pi to power robotics and retro arcade machines. A Raspberry Pi was also used in a successful attempt by Babbage the bear to beat Felix Baumgartner’s stratospheric jump. Meanwhile, Raspberry Pi’s core mission to teach a new generation to program has been trickier because getting started with a Raspberry Pi is not straightforward.
Kano is born
It was in Cambridge that Alex Klein, co-founder of Kano.me, met and was inspired by Eben Upton, one of the key forces behind Raspberry Pi. Kano.me, was born after Alex talked to his 7-year-old cousin who found the Raspberry Pi a bit too cumbersome and wanted it to be more intuitive – “Lego simple, Raspberry Pi powerful, and hugely fun.” Enter Kano – a Raspberry Pi kit to build your own computer in 107 seconds, embodying the same Judo principles of maximum efficiency and minimum effort that gave Kano the idea to name themselves after Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo. When you order a Raspberry Pi it turns up on its own – no cables, no software.
When it goes on sale in the summer, the Kano kit will contain illustrated and intuitive instruction manuals, Kano OS and Levels, 8GB SD card, a speaker, a Raspberry Pi, a keyboard, custom case, card mods and stencils, cables, a WiFi power-up, and stickers.
Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying that the computer is a bicycle “for our minds.” The tool that enables us to achieve far more than we could otherwise. So why do we need to exercise our minds with a Raspberry Pi when we have the easy to use and magical iPad? Alex feels there is a latent hunger to look below the beautifully designed but hermetically sealed screen, which is why Raspberry Pi is so popular. That Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, backed Kano on Kickstarter underlines the importance of being able to get under the hood of the machine, and to have an intuitive and easy-to-use kit to do it. How does Alex feel about a Kano kit being in the hands of Woz? He’s excited but wants to make sure that it is “pretty sweet” by the time it lands on his doorstep.
Children have the expectation that the world is there to be poked and prodded, the desire to make and play. At the same time more and more people are supporting ways to teach coding skills at school. It is going to be part of the National Curriculum in the UK from September. 2014 has been declared the Year of Code in the UK, but has been controversial. Fundamentally, coding is still not understood by the majority, as demonstrated by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman described it as “keyboard skills” when interviewing the Year of Code Director Lottie Dexter. Lottie has also been criticized for fronting the campaign when she can’t code herself. Which perhaps neatly underlines the place Kano is trying to fill, making it easy for anyone to pick up the kit and learn, focusing on creativity, exploitation and play to make transforming the world around you a fun experience. As the price of computing is dropping such that it is becoming a commodity, all you need is your imagination.
Is there still a place for computer companies?
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Kano is a business, albeit one that is positioning itself as part of the greater coding movement. Alex wanted to create a real computer company, and he sees the commercial drive giving them a nimbleness and an ability to scale quickly. He’s clearly passionate about the broader mission, using resources through Kano Academy to give away kits and spread it around the world. There is also a strong community feel in what they do. To make the Kano book available in different languages they started by paying for 10 languages to be translated. This was resource intensive, so he made the book open source and they ask the community to help translate it – it is now in 50 languages.
Design is a crucial element. This is true of the physical product, where they worked with London design consultancy MAP to create the keyboard (with both coding and gameplay in mind) and the packaging. It is also true of the user experience. The Kano books are written to be stories – as Alex said, to be “read at bedtime.”
Alex is an advocate of the crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter. He is also the cousin of Saul Klein – founder of Seedcamp and Lovefilm, on the original executive team of Skype and now a partner at the VC firm Index Ventures. So it might seem odd that Alex went down the Kickstarter route. Not so, said Alex, Kickstarter is a way to connect to future customers, proving value to future VC backers. It also required no intermediary to reach the customer, tearing down the barriers that usually block invention. Saul is co-founder at Kano, and spurs Alex to think about scale and making Kano the computer for an emerging generation of truly digital natives.
For Kickstarter you need a working prototype. Kano already had a product, the $100k initial target on Kickstarter was intended to fund their first production run. Their campaign plan was blown out of the water when they made their original target in less than a day and went on to raise over $1.5M with over 13,000 backers from more than 40 countries. Kano took 200 prototypes and went testing them round schools. They asked children the questions: Who has seen the inside of a computer? A few hands would go up. How does a computer work? Fewer hands would go up. Who could build a computer and make a game? When no hands were going up on the last question they knew they were on to something. Kano’s starter projects include creating games as a fun way to get started. The Kano OS combines Raspbian, one of the OS options for Raspberry Pi, with a game developing platform to make this process easy. With it you can drag Minecraft blocks and see the code that generates them appear alongside. Kano definitely isn’t just for kids, though. The youngest they’ve had using it is 6 and the oldest is 81.
What about the future of computing? Don’t let anyone tell you it will be wearables, said Alex. These will be a first world fashion accessory for the next ten years. Instead, the future will be cheap, accessible and open tools that empower a new creative generation, including everyone from Shenzhen to Delhi and Sierra Leone. In 10 years, Kano may not be making kits with Raspberry Pi, but they will aim to working with whatever tools are empowering the new creative generation.
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About the series
Thomson Reuters Labs™ partners with Cass Business School to bring you EntrepreneursTalk@Cass in London. These interview-based evening events feature founders of successful start-ups from London and take place at Cass Business School. EntrepreneursTalk@Cass are designed to inspire students, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in tech.
The talks are hosted by Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large, Reuters. Prior correspondent experiences include: Reuters TV, Wired UK, CTV News, and CBC Undercurrents.