Interview with Alex Klein

Alex Klein

You Can Do It

We talk with Alex Klein about Kano – a computer anyone can make.

Raspberry Pi Geek: About a year ago, you brought "Kano: A computer anyone can make" to market on Kickstarter. Can you give us a brief overview of what Kano is?

Alex Klein: Kano is a computer that you build and code yourself. It comes as a kit and we think that it is one of the simplest and most fun ways for anyone of any age to get started making technology, understanding the ideas that make computers work, and starting to take control of them to build cool stuff. It is based on the Raspberry Pi, and it is a layer built around the Raspberry Pi, and one of the core goals was to take what we loved about the Raspberry Pi and bring it to more audiences.

We wanted to make it easier for novices to get started and to add, on top, a layer of projects of making and playing to open it up to a wider audience. So partly the Kano kit is a £100 [$150] single-board computer with all the trimmings – WiFi, cables, a DIY speaker, customization projects in the case and, of course, our open source stack based on Debian (well, really Raspbian) called Kano OS. It is also a suite of Levels and apps where you are coding in Minecraft, making music with a Sonic Pi derivation, building a little web project, and drawing with code. Altogether it is what we would describe as a really fun, really simple computer kit designed for all ages all over the world. That is where we began, and this week we just shipped out the first 18,000 units to 87 countries – so we are on the way, but still really at the beginning.

RPG: How long had you been working on Kano before the official launch on Kickstarter in November 2013? Had you been working on the kit since the Raspberry Pi was first launched?

AK: I was keen on Raspberry Pi since the beginning, but when I first started getting really passionate about it was in November 2012 – I met Eben Upton in Cambridge for the first time. My original intention in meeting him was just because I was enamored with the Raspberry Pi project, because obviously we all were. I met Eben and was originally going to write a Newsweek story on him, but after getting to know him and becoming a bit more disenchanted with journalism myself, I thought that there was something I could do along with what was already being done in the Pi space that could potentially be helpful.

Where that came to fruition was with my cousin, Micah, who was 6 at the time. I showed him a Raspberry Pi, and we tried to get it set up with the then version of Raspbian, burning it with Win32DiskImager onto an SD card, and we found we didn't have all of the right cables. We turned to all of the available resources and found that a lot of them were quite tricky and very long and certainly not well suited to a 6 year old. But even for me – someone who is very much a novice developer, someone who is by no means a "kernel monkey" – it was difficult. The difficulty, the barrier to entry, was getting in the way and was too high for a lot of people who could get a lot of love and goodness and creativity out of this incredible single board computer. That was where it began.

RPG: What was your motivation behind Kano? What sparked the initial idea?

AK: Micah made us the challenge to make it as simple as Lego. To build a kit that would allow him to make a computer and code it as easily for him as it was to build his first Lego helicopter. From there, I talked to Micah's dad who introduced me to Yonatan Raz-Fridman, my co-founder, and we then moved into a flat together in North London and started folding up these little cardboard boxes, and I started writing a little story book basically on "how to make a computer." I started drawing pictures and I wrote on the first page "this is your little computer – it looks a bit complicated but you can make it yourself and use all of its powers." That was the opening line, and we went page by page from there.

We started going into schools shortly after that and, in the very first school we went into with a group of kids in North London, we asked them "who has seen the inside of a computer?" and "who thinks they can make a computer?" None of them raised their hands. And then an hour later with these simple boxes and books, cords, cables, and a Raspberry Pi, they had built the system [and] pulled a video from YouTube using the yt application, and they had written a bit of Python into Minecraft and saying they felt like super-children. That day really gave us the momentum to go forward.

RPG: You mentioned that your background was in journalism. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

AK: Definitely. I was a business and technology journalist at Newsweek  – one of my aspirations was to be a writer and an explainer. Someone who would take complicated things like the credit default swap or the Heartbleed or Shellshock bugs and use stories and characters to give normal people a way of understanding them because they have so much influence over our lives.

RPG: It seems like you have kind of taken your previous career and changed its focus to something else.

AK: We are entering a world now where it really is becoming possible for a lot more people to join in the fun of making stuff with computers and of course actually creating things with them. I think that what is lovely about the Raspberry Pi project is that from the beginning it was not just about making a really cheap computer but about making sure every kid could have one in their bedroom. So, instead of their first experience of a computer being a hermetically sealed tablet filled with Silicon Valley content, let's have their first experience with a computer being something open and playful and with something they can build themselves.

RPG: Why did you choose Kickstarter as your launch platform? And, how critical do you think that decision was to Kano's success?

AK: From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to crowdfund. Since we were doing a totally open development process we knew that if we funded on Kickstarter that we would have a lag time of around eight months to a year to work with backers and really understand what they were interested in about the kit and move it in that direction.

So I guess it was a combination of the fact that firstly we wanted to launch quickly so we could learn as much as possible, and secondly we wanted to crowdfund in a way that represented our principles, and lastly it seemed like we could use these initial backers not just as money, but as people framing the product themselves. What we found in the past nine months is that a lot of the backers have contributed to the development of the OS, [and] they have talked about the kit in schools and have given really key suggestions about how to improve it from a hardware and packaging perspective.

RPG: Your cousin, Saul Klein, is an entrepreneur and venture capital guru. How much of an involvement have Saul and his company (Index Ventures) had in Kano?

AK: Saul was actually a co-founder of Kano with me and Yonatan. He has been with us since the very beginning. The first book that we wrote for the Kano kit happened with me, Saul, and Micah sort of on the floor drawing things on a piece of paper and thinking how we could make it simpler. Saul is not an operating founder; he is not involved day to day as an executive in the company but his influence on the business is immeasurable. In so far as Index Ventures is concerned, they have been incredibly supportive throughout. They were also a big source of wisdom and introduced us to the Codecademy guys who ended up joining us as advisors, and they were absolutely integral to how we thought about some of the coding components of the projects and Levels.

RPG: The Kickstarter project was fully funded in less than 18 hours and continued on to over $1.5 million in funding with over 13,000 backers. This puts you currently within the top 50 most funded projects on Kickstarter. Were you expecting such a huge response?

AK: I don't know, I mean we didn't expect to raise it that quickly or that much. It was very gratifying to see because obviously we made a lot of money and gained a lot of momentum and we can now do a lot of the things we wanted to do, but it was also great to see the wide diversity of people backing the project. We were fortunate that we did have enough money to make a decent prototype before the Kickstarter, and it was surprising but gratifying to raise as much as we did!

RPG: I guess you could really say that the Kano experience is twofold – the hardware and software. Do you see either of these as the key factor or are they equally important to the overall Kano experience?

AK: We definitely think of the Kano kit as an integrated experience in the same way that the Raspberry Pi is. I think a lot of the magic of the things you can build with the Raspberry Pi is related to the fact that it is so nice to connect hardware and software. It is expandable with the GPIO ports, and it is pretty well suited to low-level automation and that is a spirit that we continue with.

Obviously the Kano hardware – the industrial design and the packaging – is aimed towards simplicity but also power. So you have the Kano keyboard with combination trackpad and click-on board, which has both Bluetooth and radio frequency connections, so you can use it to control your Kano and something else. The DIY speaker is a really lovely little hardware project. You are pulling power from the GPIO pins and then data from the 3.5mm port. There are low levels of complexity like the stickers and stuff, which add a sort of playfulness to the kit, and then there are the higher levels of complexity like the speaker with its custom PCB and the keyboard, which is the only one in the world which has both RF and Bluetooth connection in the same unit.

The software side with Kano OS is the jewel in the crown for Kano, though, in some ways. The gentleman who is really the maestro of Kano OS is Alejandro Simon, who is our head of software and was the first employee of the company and came to us from the PlayStation 4 team. What we have created with Kano OS we think is the simplest and most fun and useful distro for the Raspberry Pi. A proud fork of Raspbian, building on the amazing work done there by Alex Bradbury and others. It is really fast, and we have even had independent testing by A1QA, so it boots the fastest, and the scores on Linpack and GTK are higher than anything else out there. The trimming and micro-optimization we did is crucial to the approachability of the Raspberry Pi. For a lot of kids – and beginners especially – their first complaint about the Raspberry Pi is that it is a bit slow and doesn't have the fluidity of their mobile phone or tablet. So we tried to design around these sorts of limitations. So the interface is very reminiscent of a console or dashboard setup. There are lots of tricks that we use to run a full JavaScript compiler and the Minecraft game at the same time, and we recompiled the kernel.

As you are building things with code in Kano OS – a pong game, a Minecraft world, a song or a little web page – you are doing that on a computer you built yourself which I think gives the user a great sense of ownership. What we would like to do more in the future is to kind of loop back to the hardware and give the user an ability to add a Pibrella, a camera module, or a Wolfson audio board and extend their hardware hacking. Once the young person is comfortable that they can understand what the different pieces of the computer do and how signals get sent from one place to the other, how those signals become commands and how those commands become code, we want to loop that all back to the integrated system, as we did with the first kit, and give them a way to make things like a radio station, a robot, or something that will blink at them when they get a Tweet mentioning their name.

RPG: The Raspberry Pi Model B+ was released recently and brought with it some significant improvements to the Raspberry Pi platform. Kano currently runs on the older Model B Rev 2 Rasp Pi. Do you have any plans to upgrade the Kano platform to utilize this new hardware?

AK: Stay tuned, stay tuned!

RPG: On your Kickstarter, there were a couple of stretch goals that were not reached, including a Kano robot kit. Now you have finished with the initial Kano goal of producing the kits, do you intend to focus some attention back onto projects such as this?

AK: We're certainly interested in more content and hardware add-ons – a lot of glorious Pi-friendly tech can be brought to Kano, already supported on our OS. For now, we're laser focused on our first 20,000 customers, staying in stock, and simplifying.

RPG: Are you aiming to have Kano support other single-board computer platforms in the future such as BeagleBone, HummingBoard, or any others?

AK: Anything's possible. But Model B+ support would likely come first.

RPG: You have already released all of the software and documentation of yours as open source. Is this something you see as fundamental to your goals as a company? Will you continue with your open source efforts for the foreseeable future?

AK: This is at the core of what we do. We hope to bring the spirit of open-source-making to a new generation – to unlock FOSS for beginners and kids. We believe deeply in a technological future that is self-made, shared, generous, and transparent. We'll keep pushing our contributions back upstream, just as we've built upon the shoulders of giants  – the Raspberry Pi foundation, Sam Aaron, Rich Wareham, Alex Bradbury, the Debian project, and more.

RPG: How vital has volunteer effort been to the success of Kano – for example, translating your Kano books, the Kano OS, and other things?

AK: Huge. The Kano tribe has translated our books into over 100 languages already. We've also had dozens of vital merges in our OS and Levels, plus dozens around the world teaching Kano in classrooms, at hackathons, and in their spare time. The really exciting part of Kano comes after you've made it, built projects and games, and learned how to express yourself with computational thinking across multiple languages and tools. Then, you share and contribute back. It's a virtuous cycle.

RPG: Tell us a little bit about Kano Academy and what you are trying to achieve with that project?

AK: It's our not-for-profit effort to get more kids making with technology worldwide, even if they can't afford a kit. We've given away hundreds of kits already, through DonorsChoose and Kelvin Doe's Innovation Lab in Sierra Leone. Now that we've started shipping, we're working to build partnerships with NGOs and corporates to defray the cost of charitable kit donations worldwide. We also contribute free workshops around the UK.

RPG: What can we expect to see from Kano in the next 12 months and beyond?

AK: Stay tuned and sign up for our newsletter. There's magic coming that you don't want to miss.

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