Monday, 23 April 2012

The ZX Spectrum is 30!

So today, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum turns 30. Apart from making me feel my age, this seems like quite a milestone because I, like many others in the UK software industry, learnt to program by messing around with that little black box.

The machine was designed to keep cost to a minimum, and also to allow people to write their own programs very quickly and simply. When you switched the machine on, you got a flashing cursor which you could instantly use to start writing a program and electrical stores were constantly filled with screens where some spotty kid (like me) had gone and typed in variants of:

10 PRINT "James woz ere"
20 GOTO 10

Computer magazines in the 80s came with programs you could type in (it was only later that they started sticking a cassette to the front so you could bypass the typing), and even if you were just in it for the games you had to type a BASIC command, LOAD "", to get going.

In 2012, we have computers several times more powerful than a Spectrum in each of our credit cards, and our desktop computers have around 100,000 times more memory. It would take about 100 Spectrums just to hold a single 4 minute MP3. And yet, we are completely dependent on stuff other people have built. Gone are the days when the curious kid could open their Christmas present and within 10 minutes be making it say rude things about their siblings in flashing letters. I suspect that for my children and most of their peers, the first computer they actually own will be a cheap Android tablet or an iPod Touch. Fantastic machines of course, but to even begin to program them you need to hook them up to a desktop machine on which you've installed a development environment. Not exactly conducive to casual tinkering is it?

If we want, as a nation, to stay near the forefront of software as it becomes all-pervasive, rather than just consume the stuff as we do with many other things, we need to find a way of inspiring children to program. It's great to see projects such as the Raspberry Pi, and a recognition within government that ICT in schools needs to be about more than learning to use Word and Excel. But as parents, we also need to do our bit.

I've written code since the age of 10 so it's easy for me to get excited about it. As with anything where you create something from nothing, from painting to house-building to cooking to engineering, programming is fantastically rewarding because you are making something which no one has made before. It also requires and encourages you to be both analytical and creative at the same time, things I certainly want to encourage in my own kids.

So, with this in mind, here are a couple of useful links:
Scratch, kids' programming language
Alice, "an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation..."
This book for kids (and adults!) who want to learn to program

It's great to see that my generation who grew up with their Spectrums (yes and the C64, BBC Micro and so on as well) is beginning to realise that in the search for usability we've lost something along the way and is beginning to do something about it.

No comments: