A use for NT on ARM, after all

Just two days ago, I mentioned in this blog the Windows port Microsoft made for the ARM architecture:

Microsoft, for things like the (abandoned) Windows RT and Windows Phone, besides porting some of the upper layers of the Windows stack and developing new ones, also had to do additional work to get the NT kernel to run on such hardware. It’s worth mentioning that despite that effort, Windows Phone 8+ has hardware requirements higher than those of Android (comparing versions released in the same time span, please correct me if I’m wrong).

Today, as I open the web browser I’m greeted by multiple related news: a quad-core ARMv7 / 1 GB RAM version of the popular Raspberry Pi board, named “Raspberry Pi 2”, was released, will run Ubuntu Snappy Core, and, mind you, Windows 10.

Now that Windows RT is pretty much dead in the water, it looks like Microsoft found at least one use for their port besides Windows Phone: a strategically introduced “Windows 10 for makers”, which is free – something that would come out as impossible some years ago, in the license-angry Microsoft phase. (Yes, just like they also offered the Windows 8.1 license to OEMs of tablets with screen >= 7 inches, and apparently will offer Windows 10 to Windows 7 and 8.1 users for one year after its release). Of course, there’s no news of this Windows version being the slightest open-source – that is something that in the beginning of 2015, is still thought as “impossible” – but Microsoft is making promising steps, after having open-sourced the .NET framework.

Now, let me explain: while this is a nice move from Microsoft, is not something that leaves me particularly happy (in fact, it leaves me somewhat worried, and it’s not because “OMG OMG Linux is going to lose market share”). For starters, there’s the fact that there have been way more powerful ARMv7 devices around for a long time, for a similar or equal price ($35 USD) – take a look, for example, at the ODROID-C1, so why didn’t Microsoft decide to offer Windows for those too?

The answer, in my opinion, is very simple: Microsoft wants to “look cool”, and benefit from the free advertising and consequent increase of popularity a partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation has. Releasing Windows 10 for ARM in a more flexible setup (one that would support different boards besides the new Raspberry Pi) would be even more interesting to the community and probably more flexible for wearable, IoT, etc. projects, but that’s not the path they chose.

Supporting only the Raspberry Pi is also the easiest option, partly due to the lack of standards in the ARM world, which I complained about in the aforementioned blog post. Supporting other boards would lead to a lot of work supporting the different SoC, different peripherals, different boot methods and imaging formats (nothing that Microsoft couldn’t abstract away with a generic second-stage bootloader for WIM files), etc. In other words, it would leave them with as much work as the Linux community has in order to support different embedded systems and CPU architectures (heh).

Something that’s still unclear to me is the licensing part. This Windows version, while free, certainly comes with caveats. I’m sure Microsoft won’t allow using it on consumer products based on the Raspberry Pi (for example, using the upcoming version 2 of the Compute Module), as otherwise it would constitute a free alternative to licensing Windows Embedded. I also expect this version to come severely crippled as not to be able to act as a server; otherwise, expect some cheap Windows servers coming up soon. Even if it’s not crippled, the EULA rules it all, which means that even if a port of this Windows to other ARM boards and devices was possible, or if someone starts selling RPi-based Windows ARM servers, it most likely would not have Microsoft’s blessing.

I’m also a bit worried that the Raspberry Pi Foundation might start to push for Windows instead of Linux, especially since I bet the Windows port will be much more popular than the Linux distros. Doing so would kill half of the purpose of the whole Raspberry Pi thing, in my opinion. Most kids, given the opportunity to use the same user interface and some of the programs they are already used to, will never try to learn new things, much less tinker with them. Having them use a different GUI, or perhaps no GUI at all, by booting directly to a shell (try that, Windows! The closer you can get is the command line on a Windows Recovery Environment! heh) allows for an experience that is, from the start, much different from what they would get with a typical off-the-shelf computer.

By making people move out of their “comfort zone”, the Raspberry Pi Linux distros encouraged people to learn their way around a different system. I’m afraid people who buy a Raspberry Pi and promptly install Windows on it will keep without knowing what a command line is, and will keep doing the same things they did on their full computers. Text-based UIs are definitely not the best option for many/most things, but there are many things they’re better at than GUIs, and more importantly, some people find them out to discover they like them much more than GUIs. But if these people are never given the opportunity, they will never find it out.

Now I must admit, it would be super awesome if Microsoft came up with something like FX!32 but for running x86 binaries on ARM. That would probably require an even more restrictive EULA and/or more crippling for this Raspberry Pi version, as then people would be able to run, for example, all sorts of existing server software that currently requires a paid Windows Server license.

To conclude, I don’t think Microsoft is actually interested in making Windows available for more devices or actually making it a viable choice for low-cost embedded hobby projects and consumer products. They are just trying to gain popularity among not only the general public, but also among the developer and hobbyist community. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this movement of “embracing OSS and open-sourcing ALL THE THINGS!” is going to last when/if Microsoft reaches their market share goals.

We can look into how the competition did: Android, initially pretty much completely open source, was made more closed as its market share increased. Google keeps on moving more and more things to closed-source blobs under their control, which has upsides (it’s easier to update many parts of the OS) and many downsides (lower user control, etc.). I wonder and worry if Microsoft will do something similar as their popularity endeavors are successful, turning their back on users, developers and all this “freedom hype” once again.

The Raspberry Pi: What it is and why it will make a difference

I’ve met the Raspberry Pi project around three months ago, and immediately fell in love for its concept and idea: to build a extremely cheap Linux box that could be used to teach children the world of programming, Linux and even open source in general. But when I first knew about this project (it was on Slashdot if I remember correctly), me and lots of other people were skeptical about it, specially because of the aim price (USD $25/18,5€), because of the size of the prototype board (the first one presented was no big than a USB flash drive, and in fact, was smaller than many of them), and because their website consisted of a single page with an image of that prototype board and a few technical details; it also said the Raspberry Pi Foundation was a charity (non-profit).

I forgot about the project for a few weeks: like many other people, I thought this was no more than vaporware. Later, when I visited their website again, I found it to be much more complete, and it already had some more information and more facts had been confirmed. From then on, I began to check the website much more frequently and, currently, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t look like vaporware anymore: there are alpha boards built that have been distributed to various people doing software work on them, and the project staff has ran demos of the Alpha boards at many meetings. The Raspberry Pi was and continues to be responsible by news articles, sometimes front-page articles, on many technology sites. They also shown on UK television and radio. All this, and they haven’t released a final product to the market yet!

So what is the Raspberry Pi, in conclusion? It’s a extremely cheap, cheaper than many books, embedded Linux board. At launch, there will be two models: A and B. The model B has better features than the A, they will cost $35 and $25 respectively. Behind the project there’s a charity with the same name, the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Both models feature an ARM11 Broadcom CPU clocked at 700MHz and a GPU capable of drawing Full HD H.264 videos at 30fps, and supporting OpenGL ES 2.0; a SD/MMC/SDIO card slot from which the OS will boot. For video output, the Pi has both an HDMI connector and a good old composite video connector, which means the Pi will be able to display not only on a modern LCD with HDMI connectors, but also on older TV sets and displays that feature composite video input(s). The RAM varies according to each model, and is presented stacked on top of the CPU (PoP configuration). Both models have some GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) pins, although nowhere as many as things like the Arduino.

As for power supply, the Raspberry Pi will ask for a 5V input, and it should run off 4 AA cells. It will use a micro-USB connector for power supply, but note that it doesn’t act as a USB client device (it only draws power from micro-USB, no data). The energy consumption of the board is also incredibly low, and I believe it is lower than the consumption of many devices in standby mode.

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

Model A will only have 1 USB port, no ethernet and 128MB of RAM, whereas the model B will feature 2 USB ports, an ethernet jack and 256MB RAM. The final PCB design has been released, after lots of work doing the routing of the tracks of the PCB to ensure the maximum efficiency of the Raspberry Pi; the board will have the same area as a credit card (it’s amazing how could they fit all the connectors in such a small size board).

Oh, and I forgot to say: the Pi also has a 3.5 mm jack audio output; combine this with the small form factor of the board, some portable power supply and buttons connected to the GPIO, and there you have a very powerful MP3 player that also turns into a full-featured PC when you connect a display, keyboard and mice to its USB port(s). Or you could bring a touchscreen and make your very own Android/Ubuntu/whatever Linux tablet!

The circuit scheme of the final boardThe circuit scheme of the final board

As for the software, the board is designed to run ARM Linux distros, but people are already planning on porting other lightweight OS – don’t expect Windows in any way though as a) this device is simply too open-source for Microsoft’s mind and b) There’s not enough RAM to run Windows 8 in any way. Plus, WINE and other Windows abstraction layer software will not work, as these are not designed for ARM. Apart from these limitations (that most certainly don’t affect you unless you were expecting to make a hardcore gaming machine out of it), the Pi will do, better or worse, practically everything you do with a PC: web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheet, instant messaging… for more advanced users, this is also a perfect server, either for serving files on USB drives, or hosting websites. For those (of any age!) willing to learn (embedded) software development, this is also the perfect device – specially because it’s cheap as hell, when compared to things like the successful Beagleboard.

I guess that we only need to allow time for humans to develop uses for the Raspberry Pi, and some of them will drive our minds crazy I’m sure. Enough presenting the Pi, if you want to know more you can do research…

Why I think the Pi will make a difference

You already saw what the Pi is from my quite long introduction above. I won’t say this is a revolutionary device, that will change the way we see technology. I won’t say that this is going to cause an impact as big as the iPhone caused on mobile phones or as the iPod on digital music, either, specially because a) the Pi doesn’t have an Apple on the back, b) the iPhone/iPod weren’t news either, since things like them already existed before; that fruit company only made them friendly to the masses (and credit to them for that).

Other thing that makes me think the Pi won’t reach the intended audience so fast as some expect is it’s appearance. I don’t want to make more analogies with Apple’s devices, but please allow for just another one: smartphones existed well before the iPhone, and I have an HTC phone from 2005 that did more (has 3G connectivity, for example) than the first iPhone, that was launched much later. Then why didn’t the older smartphones make much success? I don’t think expensive is the problem, but their look: most of them look ugly, to the masses at least, something the iPhone did better (just like with most recent Apple products).

Stopping with Apple analogies (I promise!)… the Pi is an innovative product by its size, its price and its main objective. If enough people know about it, it will suppress many markets, such as the thin clients one. From my point of view, this is the most cheap and minimal mini-ITX you can get, with the detail it doesn’t run Windows, but that is a matter of getting the world used to Linux. Due to its small power supply requirements and the cheap price, it will also bring computing where it is very rare nowadays, enabling people in development countries to have their first PC (or PED – personal embedded device 🙂 ). If we find a way to cheaply connect the Pi to the internet no matter where one is, it is even better, because people that have gain access to the ‘net and to who we teach how to use it, will eventually become better informed people.

In other words, this is a bit like the OLPC project, except that, at least in my honest opinion, and based on what I know from the OLPC project (which might not be accurate), it is being done with much more responsibility and a true knowledge of the requirements of the target audience. It also uses emerging technologies such as Linux for the ARM architecture, contributing to the evolution of the open source universe. But still, I don’t want to say the Pi is the perfect device: the Universe doesn’t allow perfect things to be made, duh. So, not being the perfect device, there’s always space for improvement, specially because one size doesn’t always fit all, and people will always one to thinker with a Pi to make them more like their own definition of “perfect”.

Other important difference in comparison with the OLPC project is that it isn’t just for children: indeed, the first batch of 10000 Raspberry Pies will be more targeted at developers and hackers (that doesn’t mean some “hackers” aren’t as young as me…), however and unlike was wrongly stated in many news, any person can buy it. Detail: I’m not yet sure if the first batch will be sold as a buy-one-donate-another project, making you pay for two Pis whereas you’ll only receive one, having the other going to charity. Please enlighten me on this subject!

The defects of the Raspberry Pi

As I said, this isn’t the perfect thing, and I think it’s important to point out its defects and limitations, because only this way we can improve on them. So, here are the things that according to my thoughts are yet to be solved or better discussed:

  • Peripherals: the Pi can be considered nothing more than a PC’s motherboard; it still needs you to have all the peripherals, from keyboards, mice, SD cards, and specially, a screen where to show things. The screen is the most expensive part, if you assume people can’t use an existing screen because of e.g. the lack of one.
  • Power supply: well, this is a “defect” that comes with every device, so I’m not considering it as a defect, but more of a “thing to discuss” – and many people are already discussing it, fortunately. Even if the Pi consumes such little power that it can run of standard AA cells, the things you’re going to connect to it won’t. And being the Pi basically just what a motherboard is to the PC, it’s pretty useless without some input/output devices – and these will consume much more power than the Pi. Well, we can assume you only connect a four-line character cell display to it, and a USB keyboard for input, and then use the display to show four lines of Linux shell – not very practical, obviously.
  • Memory/CPU specifications: As I said above, it’s not going to run the traditional Windows, nor a recent Firefox on Linux, at least until they stop making memory-hungry Firefoxes. It’s all a matter of studying the capabilities of the device and see if it applies for your project. I think the low specifications of the board also have a positive point: It will teach the young developers how to make apps that don’t use 1GB of RAM after half an hour of use, thus teaching these developers how to manage the system resources.
  • The case: it’s known that the Pi will ship without case. There will be cases available on the online store of Raspberry Pi, but of course these cost some money, increasing the price of the device if you must have a case. Of course, we can’t see just the negative part of this: the lack of a case opens people’s mind to creativity and curiosity, making them poke inside the Pi. If it breaks… well, if you have enough money to buy another, that’s not a problem. However, if we want to incentive children to learn programming with the Pi, it must be made somewhat attractive.

Finished! This is my long essay on the Raspberry Pi… please correct me if you find any errors on the facts presented here, and take the opportunity to express your own opinion by dropping a line on the comments. Oh, and of course don’t forget to visit the official Raspberry Pi website for more amusement! 😉

My first Slashdot submission was… accepted!

I don’t know if you ever took the time to see my profile on Slashdot… for quite a long time, I had a terrible karma at there. Not that I consider myself a troll, but it seems other users with modpoints never liked my posts and always modded down to -1.

Following some recent news about the Raspberry Pi project, I decided to submit a Slashdot story on it… at first I saw the submission getting voted down, so I gave up on checking its progression and thought “nevermind, Slashot’s not a site for me”. But today, I got a message from Liz (at the foundation), thanking me for what she called “slashdottage”. I thought, “thanking for submitting a story that wasn’t even accepted?”. Then I checked Slashdot… and after a story about Portuguese schools moving to OSS (which I haven’t seen any consequence of), I saw my story submitted… oh my!

Well, this blog wasn’t Slashdotted – fortunately, since I configured the web server to only allow two PHP processes at once, or the server would get a memory outage. At this moment, it’s got about 7 clicks referred from Slashdot.

By the way, my Slashdot karma went from ‘terrible’ to ‘bad’, and I got eligible for the removal of ads on the Slashdot website (something that already happened anyways, since I have AdBlock enabled – but don’t tell them!).

I even joked with Liz that they should offer me a discount on the first Pi I buy. But, hey, they’re a non-profit, so let’s pay the full price and be nice 🙂