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Kano – simple as Lego, powered by Pi

We interview Alex Klein about the best new education program for the Raspberry Pi

For some time now, there has been much talk about the Raspberry Pi revolutionising the teaching of computing in schools. Linux User & Developer has devoted much space and attention to the growing number of Jamborees and the increasing attention teachers are giving to the small, £25 bare-bones machine. It is, say advocates, the perfect way to introduce children to the world of computing, allowing them to see and actually interact with the innards of the machines they are using. It is, they add, a great platform for programming and for creating all manner of electronic wonders.

But for former journalist Alex Klein, it doesn’t quite go far enough and – simple as many believe it is to use – he believes the Raspberry Pi in its vanilla state is still too confusing for some. He points to the Raspberry Pi For Dummies guide which, at 400 pages, he feels is far too long and impenetrable. This is the reason why he began a Kickstarter project called Kano: in order to produce a user-friendly computer and coding kit, asking for $100,000. By the time the project was successfully funded on December 19, 2013, 13,387 backers had pledged $1,522,160.

The Kano package
The Kano package

Far from setting itself up to be in competition with the Raspberry Pi, the Kano is actually powered by it. Instead of giving people a simple board, Kano wraps the Pi in a case, adds all of the necessary cables and bundles in a colourful keyboard. It also runs a version of Linux that has been designed by the Kano team and places an emphasis on programming. Rather than ask people to fiddle around with the Pi until they figure out how to use it, Kano expects users to turn it on, instantly get going and figure out the deeper stuff later on. And, unsurprisingly, the idea has really taken off.

“To an extent,” he says. “When we launched Kano, we figured the kits were costing us around $90 to make, so that’s why we came up with the figure of $100,000. We thought that we’d make 1,000 kits and then keep testing, keep iterating, keep going into schools, keep talking to artists and engineers and parents and make it better. But when we pushed the button, something crazy happened and the idea just sort of took off. We raised $100,000 in 16 hours.”

The idea for the Kano had actually been formed in January 2013 with the original challenge for the project coming from Alex’s seven-year-old cousin, Micah. The youngster had said he wanted to build a computer that was as simple and as fun as Lego and Alex, who was doing some graduate work in Cambridge and was in contact with Eben Upton from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, decided to introduce his cousin to the wonders of the Raspberry Pi.

Alex Klein (right) with team member and co-founder Yonatan Raz-Fridman
Alex Klein (right) with team member and co-founder Yonatan Raz-Fridman

“But it was at a time when there wasn’t too much available for it and there wasn’t a lot of software,” Alex says. “I was incredibly excited about the Pi and I wanted Micah to take to it, but it was essentially incomprehensible to him. I realised that kids today have grown up in a world of hermetically sealed technology, so when you even try and expose them to the shell or open source libraries, they don’t quite get it.”

Alex decided he would take the Raspberry Pi, power it up with intuitive peripherals and software, produce some projects in the guise of games based around coding and make it accessible for the mainstream. He realised that not everybody was into the Pi-maker and hacker community like himself, so he felt this new approach was necessary.

“That’s how Kano came about. I needed it to be about playing, making, producing music, creating a Pong game or building a massive structure in Minecraft,” he said. “It had to be familiar. So we worked tirelessly on the design. We worked with Eben and we went to hundreds of schools, tested early versions of the kit, kept iterating and improving. We created these little DIY speakers that drew power from the Pi’s GPIO ports and we created a cool modular side-clipping case that allowed you to extend your Pi in numerable ways while still clipping into a basic framework. All along, we had in mind that the user shouldn’t get confused; they could basically still always look back and make sure that everything was attached appropriately.”

In the process, Kano has proved to be a record-breaker. Building a computer from the PCB up, making it intuitive and basing it on storytelling resonated with people. American-born Alex flew from London to the USA to show his friends and family what he had been working on. By the time the plane landed, the amount raised had shot up to $250,000. It became the most crowdfunded learning invention of all time and the most-funded Kickstarter campaign to originate in the UK. It even attracted attention from some high-profile figures; UK chancellor George Osbourne seemed rather taken with it – as did prime minister David Cameron – but for Alex, gaining the backing of Apple founder Steve Wozniak was thrilling. “He put money up,” says Alex, the surprise still evident in his voice. “He is a personal hero of mine and it really blew me away.”

Since then, Kano has grown massively. It has an office in London and the team is made up of 17 people from 10 different countries. Kano is pushing its software back upstream into the community and Alex says it has proven to be an incredible adventure. “We’re building a new computer company, we’re making hardware, software, content, online and we love it,” he says. “We feel really privileged and humble to have gained the attention we did and we want to make good on it by shipping something amazing.”

And ship they will. Kano told backers from the start that the computer would ship in the last week of July, so people will soon be getting hold of their bright orange boxes and delivering their own verdict on whether the project has been a success. There is always a danger that the project will fall short – there are hundreds, if not thousands of Android-based Ouya consoles gathering dust and being flogged on eBay, for example – but it seems unlikely Kano will go the same way. Alex says Kano will not stand still and his team is already looking to further and expand on what has already been achieved.

One of the key achievements has been Kano OS, a fully featured operating system for Raspberry Pi that is based on Debian Linux. The website says it has a simple interface, allows for seamless setup, automagic Wi-Fi and Updater and coding projects. Plus, it can be downloaded and put on an existing Pi using the Kano Burner, so everyone can try it. There was never any question of basing the OS on anything but Linux.

“I’m a Linux hobbyist and amateur,” says Alex. “It’s not my main machine but it’s something that I’ve always experimented with in the playground or, as they call it, the Bazaar – which people will know if they’ve ever read The Cathedral And The Bazaar, which is just a brilliant book on Linux and open source. The future, whether people accept it or not, is going to be driven by open source development. Debian on ARM, especially in the non-Western world, is becoming the platform of choice for creative, distributed ground-up development. It’s not surprising. We tend to assume that the best tech products have to emerge from the hermetically sealed Jonny i-run Apple lab in Silicon Valley, but the truth is we’re reaching a point where Stephen Frost [Debian’s maintainer] can compete on all levels with closed and non-lever solutions.”

Alex is certainly an advocate of Linux. He points out its use in sub-Saharan Africa, in East Asia and in the Indian sub-continent, and he says we’re seeing ever-more younger people adopting free and open-source stacks. As well as affordability, he says, open source allows for a much more anarchic kind of marketplace of ideas. He wants Kano to be the company that takes this spirit to the mainstream, making it simple and fun for anyone anywhere to make and play with Linux.

“I was turned on to the magic of Linux at a very early age,” Alex continues. “I’m young enough that I never really played around that much with DOS, so this is a type of magic that the younger generation deserves the chance to experience. What’s great about the Raspberry Pi is they’ve created a cheap modular Linux board at a price less than a textbook. People like us, we can come in and kind of Lego-ify the experience and make it as sort of ground-up and constructionist as your first build-a-helicopter set that you did when you were seven with Lego.”

But like Lego, Kano isn’t a charity. It is run on a business model and it aims to make money. Saul Klein, the father of seven-year-old Micah, is a big name in the venture capital community and he helped to fund the venture in its pre-Kickstarter days. Alex found Kickstarter liberating because it enabled him to build a rapport directly with his customers, but it is still a commercial venture. Not that there is anything wrong with forming a company around Kano – the more money it attracts, the more ambitious its aims can be. There is a sense that, for Alex, the fun is in building something from scratch and being able to get involved in the entire process.

“It brings a bit of humanity back to software development,” he says. “I like the level Kano is at. With open source and Linux, you see something you like, whether it’s raindrops rolling down a window in JavaScript or a beautifully customisable desktop manager for the Raspberry Pi, or an open source music synthesiser based on SuperCollider, and you like it and you fork it, and you get to know the creator and sometimes they’re just an amateur, it’s a hobby. That’s the beauty of Kano: it’s like you build a relationship and that’s how kids are naturally. They’re not precious about what they make. They make things in order to share them; they make things in order to be cool. I think as we get older we start drawing lines around things and we say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to protect this, we’re going to copyright that’. That’s fine, that’s part of the creative process as well, but when you’re young there’s a sense these days, especially with this generation, that you have an audience from the minute you go on the internet. You have a community, you’re surrounded by people who are already interested in what you want to do.”

He talks of 14-year-old Amy Mather who is making a name for herself in Raspberry Pi circles and her use of open source libraries to create Conway’s Game Of Life. He discusses children from Westminster who invented the air quality monitor AirPi. He says Kano takes a sense of engineering, creativity and problem solving to children, and presents it in a way that doesn’t seem alien, so he expects even more youngsters to naturally join the community.

“It’s a really great time to be young because the tools are there,” he says. “You can get a computer for $129 – a computer that you build yourself. The connectivity is there, you can log on and learn almost anything for free, whether through YouTube or Codecademy, and the enthusiasm is there. This is the Minecraft generation – they don’t really care as much about the sweet graphics or the blazing fast performance because they have all of this on their mobile phones. When they go to create, what they’re interested in doing is showing off. I have a brother who is 14 and he has built in Minecraft a scale replica of the Sienna Cathedral. Why did he do this? Not to make money but just because he saw other people doing something with this tool set and he wanted to basically say, ‘Hey, look what you can do – I can do it too, maybe even better’.”

Perfect for the Minecraft generation
Perfect for the Minecraft generation

Kano, he says, will harness this creativity by not bogging people down with unnecessary barriers. Alex feels that it is better to get people onto systems and using them first, and then encourage them to explore, rather than start from the bottom of the hill and work upwards – which, in a sense, is what the Raspberry Pi can feel like when a child gets hold of it for the first time. Much of it, he believes, is about confidence and allowing children to develop curiosity by simply steering them in the right direction.

“The original spirit of the Pi was for it to be a kind of code bomb, like a Trojan Horse that you would get for your kid and they would use to kind of become digitally literate, to start their journey on the road to becoming a technologist,” he says. “We’re creating a learning journey that I think makes that possible – although, of course, there’s much more to be done.”