Germans React to UK’s micro:bit

Getting kids interested in programming is all the rage right now, and the UK is certainly taking pole position with its BBC micro:bit, just recently distributed to every seventh-grader in the land. Germany, proud of its education system and technological prowess, is caught playing catch-up. Until now.

The Calliope Mini (translated here) is essentially a micro:bit clone, but one that has learned from the experience of its spiritual forefather — the connection points are spread around the outside of the board where the crocodile clips won’t accidentally touch each other.

Not content to simply copy, the Calliope also adds additional functionality. A microphone and speaker are integrated onboard, as is a Grove-style I2C connector. They’ve even added a TI DRV8837 H-bridge motor driver, so students could make a rolling robot straight out of the box.

Open Source

But the real secret ingredient here is piggy-backing on the existing BBC micro:bit codebase and infrastructure. Freed from having to re-develop all of the essentials, the Calliope team should be able to work on coding and examples for their shiny new hardware. That’s the great thing about open-source software.

We’re left wondering if the micro:bit platform will become as important as the Arduino has. If Calliope gets adopted wide-scale in Germany, that would be a harbinger. Having two countries’ kids all familiar with the same platform will certainly give it a boost.

… But not Open Hardware

[Edit: Stop the presses! Just hours after running this story, the micro:bit foundation was announced and an open hardware reference design was published. Talk about coincidences!]

But why aren’t the designs for either the micro:bit or the Calliope open-sourced? There’s not enough going on that it would take an average hacker more than an afternoon to reverse engineer either of the boards, so there’s little to gain by not opening up to the community. And many of the people contributing software would also like to contribute hardware hacks to the device’s ecosystem.

If these platforms are going to become important to future generations of hacker kids, isn’t it also important to teach them a little engineering along the way? Shouldn’t that be part of the educational package? And if getting the boards cloned and produced cheaper is the “cost”, isn’t that a win for kids who want a second micro:bit but don’t have money burning a hole in their pocket?

Hackaday kudos (and a writeup) to the first open reversing. And if you’re using the micro:bit, or its software ecosystem, here’s your call to let us know in the comments.

Thanks [Felix] for the tip!

56 thoughts on “Germans React to UK’s micro:bit

  1. Sad to see that the hardware design is not free. I live in Germany and it sure would be great to give this thing to kids in school. But we put so much tax money in such projects, yet they are not forced to open up anything. There should be more rigorous open access / libre software / open hardware laws for state funded projects.

      1. Well you can’t get more ‘Arduino like’ than that???

        Flog the idea and software from an open source project and then build closed source hardware and never acknowledge the hard work of the original project – Yep that’s ‘Arduino’ in a nut shell.

    1. For all unable to decipher the german language: The project is to be open. Here is the translation of the last paragraph on
      All materials, (hardware, software and accompanying documentation[?]) will be submitted under the OER-fiendly cc-by-sa licence

      Alle Materialien (Hardware, Software und begleitende Materialien) werden unter der OER-freundlichen cc-by-sa Lizenz veröffentlicht.


      1. what’s evil about pointing out a bit of PR fail on calliope’s part? hell, germany seems to consider it important not to offend anyone, so this isn’t even holding them up to a standard they likely to disagree with.

    1. > Um.. Is that a wearable 6 pointed star from Germany…..?
      …just an oversimplification of a snowflake…

      If we get political, we’d have to comment every triangle in Germany too… please let’s not start this and just let’s have fun with chips and friends…


  2. As far as the gossip goes, BBC plans to open the hardware specs since the beginning — it’s just a huge corporation and it takes a lot of time to get it through all the approvals. There has been several unofficial promised dates already, and they all whooshed by. Hopefully they will get their act together soon.

    1. Riffing off the apocryphal quote ascribed to Galland, when he was asked by Goering what was needed to stop losing or start winning, “Give me a squadron of spitfires!” … but I forgot…

  3. I’d rather give every child a Wemos D1 mini and an oled shield for free. They’re dirt cheap, have WiFi, and you can use nearly every programming language you want.
    If you’re lazy, you can even use ready made images (like ESPEasy), to do cool things without writing a single line of code.

    Oh, and BTW: Wemos released all of their schematics (although not the CAD data).

    1. That’s valid, but not without tradeoffs.

      BLE (micro:bit) vs WiFi (ESP8266): battery life, tether to phone vs laptop, range/hackability of networking

      ARM (m) vs Xtensa (E): standard vs specialty, availability of documentation and ecosystem — you really can’t oversell the importance of the mbed platform for folks writing software for the micro:bit on a development level.

      LEDs and buttons and etc built in (m) vs Extensible (E). This could be fixed with an ESP8266 daughterboard or two.

      But yeah. I think you can make a compelling case for both. That would have been a cool alternate universe where the BBC/education folks working on the software supported the ESP8266 for the platform. My guess is that Nordic’s pockets are significantly deeper than Espressif’s, and they’re fronting the chips.

  4. The trigger points were “startup company” and “public funding” – that is why they did not use the micro:bit.
    On the other hand there are new features that come handy like integrated loudspeaker, motor driver and Grove connector. (WiFi would be a bad choice.)
    I do not know if the micro:bit’s connectors are really too close together for young kids but once you are reshaping the board one connector at each corner seems a good idea. If the result is a star shape – so be it.

    To me the Calliope looks not as bad as it could have been. I am a bit proud of my government…

  5. Probably an Italian version won’t come, we have already Arduino as school provider. The sponsor is Telecom Italia.
    Anyway these small boards in school do wonders. Making lessons on classrooms, the kids labeled as bad guys suddenly become the most interested, some girls show off some impressive knowledge of software programming and when the ring bells they keep asking wht else can be done.

    1. I gave an “Arduino Starter Kit”,
      (a couple of Arduino clones and a bunch of sensor boards found on Amazon along with a getting started with Arduino book) to my godson last year. His older sister is now more interested in it…

  6. It does lose that edge-connector aspect though, although I doubt there are any compatible slots.

    The speaker is a good idea, as that will interest students who are more musical.

  7. I’m not sure I understand what these things are meant to acomplish or how. Is it all about coding? If so then why would they want to code for this, a device with a little LED matrix, 3 buttons (one is probably just reset) and a piezo speaker. They could just write code for the computer itself which they are coding on and have access to a lot more hardware. Or is the idea that they will use those big edge connectors and actually get some hardware to hook up. Are they going to build robots? In that case I think they should have at least a couple of h-bridges built in and they should hand out a bunch of hardware along with the badges. Otherwise, the kids who are going to bother to actually get something to hook up are going to be the same ones who would have just bought an ‘duino anyway and the rest of the kids probably aren’t going to do much with it.

    Or is the idea that kids would want to program if only they had something to code on? Are there that many kids in the industrialized world with no computer or tablet or cellphone. In that case I guess they could code on the computers at school, the advantage of the badge being that at least they would be able to take it home running their code. Are there really that many out there with no home computer though? Even a cheap Android tablet can run Aide allowing a child (or adult) to write full-fledged Android apps. There are also Python, BASIC and other interpreters which would run on a tablet or phone.

    It seems far fetched to me that there are many kids left in the world in places where their governments can afford to buy them badges like this yet they don’t just already have access to plenty of kit that they can code on.

    1. “Are there really that many out there with no home computer though?”

      I think they’re starting to die off, many people can’t be bothered any more when they’ve got a capable phone and/or tablet.

      However, the low end tablet thing is a bit of a minefield, there may be “a” cheap tablet that can do x, but you’re relying on the non tech savvy to make good choices. Some and this also goes for some higher priced brand names, are kind of hostile to many or large apps being installed. They do this by only giving you a couple of hundred MB on the system partition, and ballsing up how the rest of the onboard flash is handled, sometimes making it the only “SD Card” the apps can be moved to. Sometimes making it extra, but being super super picky about which if any SD cards they will work with. Anyhoo, even when you can move stuff to SD, by the time you’ve got half a dozen popular things on there like google maps, youtube, netflix, and moved them all to SD, they’ve still probably left a 50MB footprint, and your tiny system partition is swallowed up real quick… and the people who would have to deal with this are the ones who have a tablet because they thought windows was too complicated…

    2. Of course you are right; whenever you see the word “improving technology education” or “helping the children in poor countries”: run! The people who come up with these things do it because they reinvent the things they would have liked when they were kids themselves, obviously, but rather than embracing their own childishness (which is nothing wrong, especially for an engineer) they feel a need to somehow label it “charity” or “helping the children”, because that’s the way to attain the crown of holiness and ascend to the realm of untouchable Good Person.

      Then when public schools or some government board gets word of this sort of thing they see it as a nice opportunity to throw money at something tangible to show that they are really trying hard to improve education, without having to actually improve it of course.

      What they accomplish is to make all those “kids” they are “helping” hate programming by instilling them with the feeling that it is something obscure, obsolete and ultimately useless.

      Try getting the 50 year old ex-engineer teacher learn modern Android app development though. Not going to happen, but he’ll feel right at home with some weird device that reminds him of his high school days when he connected some transistors to the printer port on his Commodore PET and made it write out his phone number on a 7 segment display one digit at a time.

      Or the 50 year at the BBC who greenlit this thing.

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