It’s a story we’re all familiar with: Two hungry young geeks meet in a garage to collaborate on something no one has ever seen. Their first product is a humble circuit board, hardly useful to anyone who isn’t also a geek. But it ultimately leads to devices that change the world.
Of course I’m talking about the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak. But I could just as easily be talking about two folks you probably haven’t heard of.
Alex Klein and Yonatan Raz-Fridman are the co-founders of Kano, a brand-new startup that’s looking to bring the ideals of early Apple — and the Homebrew Computer Club that spawned Apple and many of the other early computer titans — to a new generation.
The Apple I was essentially a circuit board with a power supply. To turn it into a working computer, you had to add your own case, keyboard, monitor, and other essential bits. The $129 Kano kit is what a lot of early Apple I users might have wanted. It has the computer circuit board (the Raspberry Pi, which is widely available), but Kano also provides the case, wireless keyboard, WiFi dongle, cables, and Linux OS on a memory card. It’s a nearly complete computer. (You’ll still have to add the monitor yourself.)
The problem is not that kids have too much technology in their lives, says co-founder Klein. It’s that there are so few opportunities to tinker with it. Hermetically sealed tablets and smartphones are wonderful devices that let you do amazing things, but you can’t really mess around with them. You can’t even replace the batteries.
The idea behind Kano was to create a computer that’s so easy to build that an 8-year-old can do it. And then, once he’s built it, he can learn how to program it.
I think I Kano
So the other day, for the first time in my long career in tech journalism, I built a computer. It took me about 15 minutes from unboxing to booting up, half of which I spent trying to figure out how to turn it on and connect the keyboard. (If I’d had an 8-year-old nearby, I’m sure I’d have gotten it done in half the time.)
It’s amazingly simple: Slide the circuit board into one half of the clear plastic case; the other half snaps onto it with a click. Attach the speaker cable to pins on the motherboard and plug it into the sound jack. Insert the 8 GB SD card containing the OS into the memory slot, plug the WiFi and Bluetooth dongles into the USB slots, and then attach your own monitor via the HDMI cable.
When you’re done, you’ve got a fully functioning, Internet-ready computer about the size of a Sony Walkman cassette player, if you’re old enough to remember those.
But that is really the least interesting bit about the Kano (kah-no), which is named for Kanō Jigorō, the inventor of judo. What makes this more than just a simple assembly project is the open-source software that comes with it (which is a modified version of Debian Linux).
For example, Kano features Pong — yet another ode to the early days of personal computing. But instead of merely playing Pong, you can customize it as you go by assembling colored blocks containing bits of code that connect together like puzzle pieces.
You start by changing the colors of the field or the lines, then the speed of the ball or the size of the paddles, then how the game reacts when the ball is hit or a key is pressed. Click the Make button to compile the code and run it, and then go back and debug it when things don’t work the way you thought they would.
Once you’ve mastered Pong, you can learn how to mod Minecraft. A brief tutorial video walks you through the basics of creating landscapes you can share with other Minecrafters. Eventually you learn how to build castles and volcanoes. Kano can show you the actual code you’re creating as you plug together the puzzle pieces.
Every time you master a new skill, you gain experience points and earn badges that you can post to your profile and share with other Kano users. Because everything about the Kano is open source, a community of developers — some of them still in elementary school — have built their own apps you can download to the device via the Kano World app store.
The next Apple?
I got my hands on an early version of the kit, and some rough edges still show. I occasionally found myself lost at the command prompt during setup. Sometimes the CPU got overwhelmed and I had to reboot. But I’ve never used a version of Linux as intuitive and well designed as this one.
Kano is one of those Kickstarter success stories. The company asked for $100,000 last December and hit its goal in 16 hours, ultimately collecting more than $1.5 million. The first 13,000 backers are receiving their Kano kits this month. You’ll have to wait until later this fall before you can get your hands on one. Watch Yahoo Tech for an in-depth review when the final product is available.
Kano is part of a surge of new products designed to help kids create technology instead of just consuming it. The real point is to help kids discover how enjoyable that process can be, Klein says.
“This is a chance to build something cool,” he says. “Not just so you can get a better job, but because it’s fun.”
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.