The BBC is planning to distribute 7 million micro:bit computers to children in the UK with the aim of building a generation of tech pioneers. While the aim is clearly laudable and the technology is exciting, particularly the ability to connect to lots of devices and sensors, I am very worried. Almost nobody is critical of this initiative. Yet this is a public monopoly wading into the tech space which already has a competitive marketplace with raspberry pi and Arduino etc. Sure the BBC version maybe more technically sophisticated (it had better be with the assurance of 7million ‘sales’) but my concern is the significant impact this will have on the emerging marketplace for technology. While I am not an economist (despite working at the LSE) such a move may well stifle innovation and lead to a standard emerging which it suboptimal for the market. Sure everyone in the UK will be trained in micro:bit and Python (which it comes with) but this is a monopoly decision that the kids didn’t decide upon. Without this intervention perhaps the kids would choose something else. Perhaps kids in other countries are choosing something else and that choice will become the new standard. Who knows. I raise this as a kid of the 80s when the BBC last did something like this. The BBC Micro become the de facto standard because of the BBC intervention and acorn became huge. While the machine was wonderful it was also really expensive for a kid like me. The focus was on making the best machine for schools not the cheapest. So when I got my first computer it was a Sinclair spectrum and I was alone. The teachers all knew about the BBC, the school library was full of books on the BBC, the TV was full of programs about the BBC micro, but none of that was much use to me. Then along came the Atari ST and Commodore Amega and the UK micro computer industry foundered. I would love someone to critically assess the impact the BBC had on this demise by stifling competition through restricting the market to an expensive standard  (if they have let me know). Anyway I really do wish the BBC well with this new initiative and I hope we create a new generation of techies, but be warned that I am part of this industry despite the BBCs efforts in the 80s not because of it.

Written by Dr Will Venters