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updated 7:31 AM BST, Sep 18, 2014
Technology and life sciences news from the Cambridge cluster

BBC's Micro Men take audience back to the future

A shot of audience and panelLast year Autonomy became Cambridge’s largest ever acquisition, bought by HP for £7.1 billion, a monumental achievement for Dr Mike Lynch, the man that founded the software company and led it all the way through to its IPO and sale.

A 15-year corporate journey, but it was a much longer personal one that was sparked in many ways by the BBC Micro as Lynch has admitted on more than occasion – an incredible story to be sure. Yet the scale of the business aside, tales of humble beginnings that lead to towering achievements are by no means unique.

Thousands of youngsters cut their computing teeth on the BBC Micro and went on to great careers in the industry, many of them building very successful businesses. This year the Micro reaches 30 years of age and on Sunday a small but significant group gathered in the city in which it was developed to mark the occasion.

As it turned out though, not many people were interested in talking about the past for try as he might, Chris Serle could not persuade anyone to discuss what was, the only topic that mattered was what could be.

Arranged by the Centre for Computing History and chaired by Serle, presenter of the television programme that accompanied the release of the BBC Micro, the Beeb@30 didn't really end up a celebration of the Computer Literacy Project that launched it, but more a recognition of the achievement of the phenomenal team at Acorn that developed this landmark computer.

Unsurprising considering we were in ARM headquarters, Cambridge, where the room was buzzing with gleeful wall-to-wall entrepreneurial geekery.

LEGACY

Having emerged from the ashes of Acorn, ARM has grown to dominate the mobile phone market and sits in 95 per cent of the world's smart phones. It is worth over $13 billion and outsells Intel chips 20 to one according to Acorn co-founder, Hermann Hauser, yet, he adds, it is not Acorn's greatest legacy.

Opening the proceedings, Hauser afforded that title to the generation of computer scientists and programmers Acorn and the BBC Micro helped foster. From there on in people only wanted to find out one thing, how do you recreate that recipe today and breed another golden generation of computer scientists?

The starting point was a general recognition that there are fewer computer scientists coming through the education system and those that do are comparatively weak against previous generations, an experience Eben Upton had at Cambridge University and which prompted him to develop the now famous $25 Raspberry Pi computer which he showcased on the day.

The Raspberry Pi and BBC Micro are strongly linked. Upton's first significant computer was the Micro and Pi is based on an ARM processor.

The Pi is not only an attempt to nurture programming, but also the do-it-yourself hardware hacking that the BBC Micro encouraged to provide its owners with a deeper understanding of the actual guts of the machine. Upton even admitted that he and David Braben spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince the BBC to let them name the Raspberry Pi the BBC Micro.

Hauser referred to the Pi as the BBC Micro’s spiritual successor and hopes it will introduce as many people to programming – Upton would consider one thousand new developers every year a success – however, the room was full of ideas beyond the Pi to reach a new generation, including a couple of dissenters.

BEYOND THE PI

Typically, Hauser’s thinking here was grand: “Robotics. The next big step is to make a computer interact with its environment. It has to be real time and respond to whatever is out there, to learn. We need an equivalent of the BBC Micro and I think it could be the BBC Robot.”

Nick Toop, who worked on the Atom before the Micro, said Raspberry Pi was possibly too complicated for the untrained youth and that it needed a more accessible way in to the technology, such as Formula 1. He then went on to warn that anything for the future would need to take care to protect our personal liberties as computers become truly ubiquitous.

For Sophie Wilson, designer of the Acorn Microcomputer and the first ARM processor, the Raspberry Pi is not pitched in the right place at all. She believes we are taking on the wrong challenge too late and should be addressing the growing trend towards parallel computing on multicore processors: “We are fighting a lost war, in the future we will not need to program sequential language.

“Raspberry Pi is a past computer, we can build things with vast numbers of chips, but time and time again I find that people can't program them. People program sequential but computers are parallel and we need to educate people in parallel.”

Wilson also thought the technology industry needs to stop projecting an aura of geekiness if more women were to get involved, but here she said mobile phones had the potential to provide a more attractive entry point to computer science.

Andy Hopper, who helped on chip design for the BBC Micro and eventually ran Olivetti Research, said women in tech was a big problem to solve because it was so deeply ingrained in UK psychology: “It happens here, but not in other countries like Poland, where I am from, or the US. What can be done? Perhaps the Raspberry Pi or other versions of the BBC Micro at schools.

“Have teachers that are able to talk to students about programming. Cambridge University is trying to make it clear that technology can make a difference in any walk of life, but it’s difficult because it’s such a deep cultural thing.”

Steve Furber, Wilson’s design partner on the ARM chip, said it was a relatively new phenomenon and that when computer science was more closely associated with mathematics in the 1960s, the gender balance was more equal.

Further debate continued about accessible language – the BBC Micro would declare the more human sounding ‘Mistake' rather than ‘Error’, but the underlying question was how do you turn the head of children, both girls and boys, who are used to the instant and full on gratification of today's video games?

Chris Turner, who was at Acorn in 1979 and is today at ARM, made the point that coding is actually fun, creative and rewarding, perhaps all the 'in' needed for children is to make a start.

Upton seemed to concur, recounting how he was lucky to come back in one piece following his visit to a local secondary school when the young students hijacked the class and rejected the lesson plan having been given a small taste of the programming element at the beginning.

It was a theme picked up by Chris Curry, the central figure at Acorn throughout its history, who believes that the UK has an innate inventiveness that it can tap into. “We need to encourage creativity,” said Curry. “You can't go out and build a laptop or digital camera, but there are things that can be done at a low level to foster the ingenuity that exists in this country probably more than most others.”

BEERS AND BUNS

There was one question about the past the managed to get answered: ‘Why was Acorn different, what made it special?’ Hauser recalled a comment by Roger Needham, an influential computer scientist at Cambridge University and the inaugural director of Microsoft Research Cambridge; he described Acorn as a hoover for talent.

“We managed to get the brightest talent, half the computer laboratory hung out at Acorn, partly because of the Fitzbillies buns,” said Hauser. “Exciting times with some of the best people in the country.”

It turns out that congeniality was possibly a deciding factor that swung the BBC Micro deal Acorn's way. Having received an earful from Sinclair and a mainly negative attitude from most of the other companies vying for the BBC contract, David Allen explained that after a long day visiting half a dozen firms, it was the Acorn team they went back to for drinks that night.

GALLERY

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