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26 July 2012

Raspberry Pi Coding Competition

On 7th July 2012 Games Britannia launched the first Raspberry Pi programming competition.

Its aim is to inspire and encourage young people to create original software applications.

With kind permission of Micro Mart the full article is reproduced below.

Raspberry Pi Coding Competition

In 2006 Eben Upton assembled a small team of teachers, academics and computer enthusiasts. The goal was to create a small, low-cost programmable computer, aimed at inspiring owners to experiment with software development and hardware projects. A computer that could recreate excitement and the taste for engineering many acquired in the 1980s, while using the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and other similar home computers.

The result is the Raspberry Pi. A highly capable computer on a tiny circuit board, not much bigger than a credit card. Despite its diminutive size the on-board processor is capable of running a fully-specified Linux operating system, complete with graphical user interface. Running Linux ensures access to a huge collection of software applications, tools and programming languages.

This mini-computer includes HDMI, video, USB and ethernet connectivity. In addition there's a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) interface, which can be connected to experimental circuit boards and a range of peripheral devices, such as a video camera.

With a price tag of around £20 the Raspberry Pi generated a huge amount of interest immediately it was announced. The initial stock sold out almost as soon as the ordering lines opened, creating a long waiting list of enthusiastic but disappointed consumers. In the first week alone the Raspberry Pi operating system was downloaded over 30,000 times.

Competition Launch Day

On 7th July 2012 in Sheffield Games Britannia set out to inspire and encourage young people to create original software applications by launching the first Raspberry Pi coding competition. The competition has two age categories of 13 or under, and 14 to 18. To qualify all entrants must still be in full-time education.

The contest, sponsored by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, will run for eights weeks until 1st September 2012. A period that neatly coincides with the school summer holidays - in the northern hemisphere at least.

As far as Games Britannia is concerned, this is just the first of many challenges. Plans are already in progress to create a series of frequently run competitions, possibly one every week or two.

Judging And Prizes

The judges will select the eventual winner by choosing the most impressive piece of Raspberry Pi software. There are no application categories, so anything goes. Contestants are free to let their imagination run wild.

Creating such an impressive piece of software will undoubtably take a while to envisage, design and develop. However, there are some very attractive prizes on offer. The winner will receive $1000, or around £650, and there are five runner up prizes of $200 (£130) each.

No Raspberry Pi?

Does this competition only apply to Raspberry Pi owners? Not at all. In fact, any PC owner can take part. How is that possible you might ask?

Well, what's required is a software application called a virtual machine. This application can emulate the Raspberry Pi within a virtual environment, complete with user interface, applications and tools. It doesn't matter whether you own a Windows, Apple or Linux machine, they can all run a virtual machine environment.

There are quite a few virtual machine software applications available, each with their own pros and cons. Let me describe how it's done with VirtualBox from Oracle, a popular and easy-to-get-started option. It's just a three step process.

Step one is to download and install VirtualBox.

Visit virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads to see the latest versions. Make sure you select a download appropriate to your PC's operating system. The installation process is pretty straightforward, and there's help available at virtualbox.org/manual/ch02.html.

Step two involves obtaining a Raspberry Pi image.

This image contains everything you need to start writing code, including the same Linux operating system and software development tools you'd find on a real Raspberry Pi. There are quite a number available on the web, but I've used this image. After downloading this file unzip it to create a new folder called 'RaspberryPi-VirtualBox'. This folder will contain a '.vmdk' virtual disk file and a '.ovf' configuration file.

Step three adds the image to VirtualBox.

Startup the VirtualBox application, then select the File->Import Appliance menu option. This will start a wizard prompting you to choose an '.ovf' file. Select the one in the unzipped folder. Complete the wizard pages to finish importing the image.

Now all that's left to do is boot the image with the VirtualBox 'Start' button. After a short delay, the Raspberry Pi desktop will appear in the new window. Login using the username 'rpi' and password 'password', and you'll be up and running.

There are a number of alternative virtual machine applications. QEMU is a popular choice, with plenty of how-to-get-started instructions on the web. And you'll find a few other Raspberry Pi images to download at rpi.descartes.co.uk/sim-emu.

What Language?

The competition rules don't specify a particular programming language. The official Raspberry Pi development language is Python. Not only is Python installed by default, but a Python-friendly editor called Geany is also provided. If Python is a new language to you, then look out for my new Micro Mart series Learn Python on the Raspberry Pi.

However, as the underlying operating system is Linux, there's a wide range of well-supported languages to choose from. Languages such as C, C++, Java, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Lua and BASIC, to name just a few. The only complication is you may have to have to install these languages yourself.

Scratch from MIT is another interesting alternative. It's a visual language which uses interlocking blocks to build a program, as opposed to writing lines of code. There's a collection of colourful scratch cards to show how easy it is to create simple applications.

How To Enter

Competition entries are accepted from 4th August 2012. On this date an entry form will appear on the Raspberry Pi home page. Once you've created your software application you'll need to create a single archive file containing all the source code, images, data, and anything else the application needs. It's this archive file that will be submitted along with the entry form information, including the entrant's age on the date of entry.

If you have more than one application idea, that's fine too. There's no limit to the number of entries per entrant, so feel free to send in as many applications as you like. Just make sure they are truly original software creations.

Happy coding.

The Micro Mart magazine is on sale at W.H. Smiths, newsagents and some supermarkets. Purchase Micro Mart back issues in a variety of digital formats at the Zinio website.

Visit my Raspberry Pi page for news, reviews, advice and tutorials.

20 July 2012

The New Domain Names

It's the biggest shakeup of the domain name system since the popularisation of the web.

Starting next year we'll find our familiar domain strings - '.com', '.co.uk', '.net' and '.org' and so on - supplemented by hundreds of others.

So what are these new suffixes? How many will there be? Who has applied for what? And which companies are battling for the rights to own '.music', '.play', '.app', '.cloud' and '.shop'?

All this, and more, is in this week's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1218.

Here are a couple of extracts from my article:

So, what's changed? Well, now you can apply for a bespoke top-level domain string. Any name can be proposed, although there are guidelines on what's likely to be accepted. International languages are supported, so the string can be in Chinese, Arabic or Cyrillic.

Before you get too excited it's not a low-cost operation. In fact, ICANN's price is deliberately set very high to deter 'timewasters'. First, there's an upfront fee of $185,000, followed by an annual fee of $25,000. In addition there's the possibility you'll have to reserve some money for lawyers’ fees (more on this later).

And taking control of your own gTLD is a weighty responsibility. It equates to owning a piece of the Internet. So, apart from the financial side of things, ICANN will also perform checks on the nature and strength of each applicant. In the end only a relatively small number of medium to large sized organisations will end up operating one or more custom TLDs.

Integral to the ICANN process is a seven month objection period, which commenced on 'Reveal Day'. You may be surprised to know objections are not limited to other applicants. Anyone with suitable grounds can submit a formal objection, for example if they think an organisation will misrepresent the domain string in question. The ICANN site contains detailed information on how to file an objection.

ICANN has allocated around a third of the $350m so far gathered to handle objection resolutions. It sounds a tidy sum, but will it be enough? Many of these battles are bound to be lengthy and expensive. Cash-rich organisations can afford top-class intellectual property lawyers. With so much at stake the sums of money thrown at securing certain strings will be staggering - it's a great time to be a lawyer.

And if you really can't wait to find out, visit ICANN's website for the Reveal Day list of who applied for what.

Read more analysis posts.

9 July 2012

Raspberry Pi Emulation

Would like to have a Raspberry Pi experience the before you buy one of the boards?

What you need is a virtual machine.

This is software that can emulate the Raspberry Pi within a virtual environment - complete with user interface, applications and tools. It doesn't matter whether you own a Windows, Apple or Linux machine, they can all run a virtual machine environment.

QEMU software is such virtual machine solution, which can emulate the ARM chip that powers the Raspberry Pi board.

QEMU on Windows

If you are using a Windows PC the simplest and fastest way to get up and running is with a way is to obtain a zip containing everything you need.

Step 1
Download this zip file, which includes the 2012-07-15 Raspberry Pi operating system image based on a Debian Wheezy Raspbian build.

Step 2
Unzip the downloaded zip file.

Step 3
Follow the instructions in the 'README.txt' file in the 'qemu' folder.


QEMU on Linux or Mac OS X

As far as I know nobody has produced a similarly simple process for emulating a Raspberry Pi with QEMU on Linux or Mac OS X.

However, here are a couple of websites that provide step-by-step instructions:

Linux
xecdesign.com/qemu-emulating-raspberry-pi-the-easy-way

Mac OS X
www.rpiforum.net/forum/tutorials/article/16-a-raspberry-pi-emulated-environment-on-osx-lion

Visit my Raspberry Pi page for news, reviews, advice and tutorials.