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04 June 2012, 12:39

Beyond the BBC Micro

By Glyn Moody

Thirty years ago, the BBC Micro was largely an open system before free software even existed. But the Microsoft monoculture took hold, and IT education was largely reduced to training in Word and Excel. Is a brighter future offered by modern open software and hardware?

Recently, an interesting report entitled "The legacy of the BBC Micro" appeared (freely available online). For those of you too young to remember this trail-blazing UK computing project from the dawn of microcomputers, here's some background from the report:

Between Christmas 1980 and New Year, John Coll and David Allen drew up a functional description of the microcomputer. It needed to work in a television studio, as well as being robust and reliable in the real world. They wanted the machine to be transparent to users, upwards expandable (so that it could work with future hardware) and downwards compatible (so that it worked with as much existing software as possible). It also had to give users the opportunity to program at different levels of complexity, so that entry-level programmers had as much fun as those with more developed skills. They wanted to create a machine that people could use to unpick the processes of a computer through real world examples, and gave them a chance to pull all those processes together in applications that were relevant to them.

As this makes clear, in many ways the BBC Micro project was open source before even free software existed; indeed, the report frequently refers to it as "open". It was also similar in spirit to the open source world, in that its users were both passionate and inventive. It certainly formed a key experience for an entire generation of people, especially young ones in schools. It also laid the foundations for the Acorn Computer group, which designed the machine and later gave rise to Advanced RISC Machines – ARM.

That outcome was a clear success, but in another respect, the BBC Micro was a failure. Instead of giving rise to a rich, indigenous software ecosystem, as might have been hoped, the BBC Micro became a one-off without a real successor – a coding dead end. In its place, the Microsoft monoculture took root, leading to the mind-numbingly boring ICT lessons that have been a hallmark of the UK educational system for over a decade.

Significantly, the BBC Micro report refers to this fact right at the start:

In August 2011, Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt gave the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. His speech contained a stark warning about how Britain was throwing away its great computer heritage by failing to teach programming in schools: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made”.

Schmidt was not the only one concerned. Nesta’s ‘Next Gen.’ report, outlining the findings of the Independent Review of Skills for Video Games and Visual Effects led by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, had called earlier that year for the reintroduction of computer science in the National Curriculum. Next Gen. Skills, a campaign bringing together the video games and visual effects industries with other digital sectors, the Sectors Skills Councils, professional bodies such as BCS, and the Computing At School teacher network had been formed with the aim of reintroducing creative computing into English schools. The Royal Society argued, in its 2012 ‘Shut down or restart?’ report, that change was needed to “ensure that the next generation of young people in this country can be creators of technology – not just consumers of it”. This would require reviewing the term ICT (Information and Communication Technology), and replacing it with more clearly defined terms such as Digital Literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science.

That debate is continuing, but Schmidt has now announced that Google is trying to do something about this sorry state of affairs:

On Wednesday 23 May – in the auspicious surroundings of London’s Science Museum – Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, announced plans to support the training of over 100 Teach First ICT and science teachers.


Google's contribution will support Teach First's training of 102 teachers, 34 for each year of the partnership. Over the three years, Google will support 61 ICT and 41 science teachers to work in schools across the country, with the first 34 entering classrooms in September. To ensure that the ICT teachers, and their pupils, have access to the latest cutting-edge technology, Google will also provide each teacher with a bursary to fund the purchase of innovative teaching aides to inspire their classes.

Next: The modern day equivalents

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