Kano Computing, a startup that plays in the learn to code space by adding a step-by-step hand-holding layer atop the Raspberry Pi single-board microcomputer to make hacking around with code and learning about computational thinking child’s play, has shipped all the hardware kits in its first batch of crowdfunded orders and pre-orders.
That’s around 18,000 kits in all, co-founder Alex Klein confirmed to TechCrunch. “They are all in the wild, they are out of our hands. About 1,000 have arrived already — the early bird kits. And the rest, the general release, will be arriving [shortly],” he said late last week.
The company revealed it has also taken on a new senior hire, bringing in Thomas Enraght-Moony, former CEO of Match.com, as COO. Enraght-Moony will be managing sales and marketing as Kano seeks to scale globally. “He has a deep understanding of how, not only to make physical products but also to finance it — which it quick tricky for any new business, especially a business that is making a product with so many different components and so much complexity driving towards an end goal of simplicity,” said Alex.
“Because we’re a physical product and people pre-ordered it, that was enough working capital to fulfill the first pre-order of 18,000. What Tom is going to help us put in place is, hopefully, a mixed equity debt model for the future, for Christmas season.”
Kano counts Index Ventures’ Saul Klein as a co-founder, and an investor in a personal capacity. The Kleins are also first cousins, and Saul’s young son, Micah, provided the original inspiration for building a learn to code kit so this is something of a family business. So is Micah impressed with the kits Kano is now shipping? “He’s our harshest critic,” jokes Alex. “Because he’s been there since the beginning… He still wants to build a robot as well, that is why a lot of physical stuff is interesting to us.”
The lion’s share of the first batch of Kano kits — almost 13,000 kits — were ordered via its Kickstarter campaign last year, with a further 5,000 pre-orders taken via its website. The kits cost $99 (plus shipping) to crowdfunder backers, or around $160 (plus shipping) if pre-ordered on the Kano website. The company plans to focus on selling mainly via its own web channel from here on in, according to Alex.
“The example of Xiaomi, for instance, in China, a very new consumer electronics brand, sells almost exclusively online based on buzz and word of mouth, shows that you can do hardware yourself, selling exclusively through your own channel,” he told TechCrunch. “In some ways that almost builds the anticipation in the product and around the brand because you know it’s real, you know you’re supported, you know you’re getting something fully integrated — not just in the product itself but in the buying experience as well.”
Kano Kits in this first batch are shipping to 86 countries, with around half the kits destined for the U.S., and the other half going to the rest of the world. Kano has had some interest from educational institutions wanting to purchase kits, according to Alex — such as Pearson, which bought 500 kits to use to deliver the U.K.’s new computing curriculum — although the majority of sales have gone to individuals, most of whom are buying them for kids at this point.
Each Kano kit (see gallery below for photos) consists of a box containing computing hardware — a Raspberry Pi, Bluetooth keyboard, connector cables, speaker, Wi-Fi and so on — in a plug-and-play kit form with kid-friendly paper instructions on how to connect it all together. The hardware then boots up Kano’s own software which is designed to make Linux user-friendly but also to transform it into a gamified environment focused on hacking around with code.
Kano’s big idea is to get kids excited about building stuff with software by first letting them play around with — and ultimately have ownership of — fun, colorful-looking hardware. Both hardware and software elements in the kit use a step-by-step approach to breaking down complexity — including a drag-and-drop Scratch-style programming interface, called Kano Blocks, which steps the user into the world of programming via the medium of classic games like Snake and Pong, and also kid craze du jour Minecraft. Users drag and drop graphical blocks to build code but can also switch to view the actual lines of code that these blocks are generating.
We first covered Kano last November, as it was beginning its crowdfunding journey. The company went on to raise more than $1.5 million via Kickstarter to fund production of its first batch of kits. The original estimated shipping schedule for sending the kits was July 2014 so Alex concedes there has been a slight delay in fulfilling orders. But this of course is by no means unusual for crowdfunding projects — and especially for hardware projects. Hardware is always hard, given the need to establish component supply chains. Indeed, far longer delays are all too common for crowdfunded hardware projects so it’s to Kano’s credit that it’s only shipped less than two months late.
“Over the past 20 months we’ve put together, pretty much from scratch, a responsive supply chain in Southern China to source 36 different components from four countries. To combine them together on two different assembly lines, with four testing stations into 18,000 kits,” said Alex.
There are certainly many moving pieces involved in the Kano kits — given they encompass hardware, software and printed media, including some lovingly designed packaging and stickers, all of which has to be super simple to use.
“It’s a very complicated physical product… It relies on cutting edge hardware, pieces of technology that have only come into existence in the past six to nine months. The core of it is a development board and what came out of all this is that all the components that we’re building, the complexity, the makery feel, is all designed to serve an end goal of simplicity for the users to give them this simple-as-Lego experience. So yeah hardware is hard.
“You really have to go the extra distance, you have to break open the prototypes you receive. You have to make sure that you’ll be obsessive about the materials. And you also have to scale up your thinking in terms of working capital as well. We’re fortunate in that we’ve managed to secure working capital facility but as a hardware startup you can often be punished for success. So the more you sell and the better you do, and the faster your brand grows, the more cash constrained you find yourself.”
The minor shipping delay for Kano — which saw it bump Kickstarter order fulfillment from July to September — was down to two hardware supplier-related issues. “There was an HDMI cable that we were using in the kit and it was working fine but we cracked it open to see what was inside and we found that the number of cables inside the HDMI cable was like half what it should of been. So we switched that,” said Alex.
“The other one was to do with the Kano keyboard, which has an integrated touchpad and click and the Bluetooth connectivity and USB RS as well. Pretty complicated product. And we have one main supplier for it, who was relying on a couple of sub suppliers for a few components inside. And we did a full factory audit, just before shipping — to gauge social and environmental standards, working conditions. And everyone passed with flying colors… But there was one component in the keyboard, the battery, when we went to the factory of the sub supplier it wasn’t up to our ethical standards of how we’d like to manufacture.
“This supplier was very much like China five years ago, so we ditched that supplier.”
Hands on with Kano
So what is Kano like to use? I unboxed a kit sent to me by Kano and got to work plugging it in. The hardware side is very simple, with clear instructions on how to connect up all the various components, including adding a speaker to the Pi, and ensuring it has a power source, plus adding Wi-Fi to get the computer online. The keyboard and integrated keypad is very small, so certainly best suited to child-sized hands. Everything feels sturdy enough for kids to handle and worked as it should out of the box — with the only slight snag being getting the Pi out of the packaging as it’s snugly lodged within a plastic tray padded with foam. But after lifting the entire tray out of the box it came away without trouble.
After the hardware assembly you power on the Pi and Kano’s OS layer loads, asking the user to enter a name and then running through a cute intro with an ASCII art rabbit and some other Matrix inspired graphics. Then you land in Kano OS: the software environment which sits as a layer atop Debian Linux and the Pi’s Raspbian OS to make it more user friendly. This has a simplified Windows or Chrome OS feel, with a selection of apps you can run at the bottom of the screen and a task bar offering some settings and help menus.
The apps provide access to Kano Blocks, via games such as Snake, Pong and Minecraft, as well as a music maker app. The system also supports open access to the Internet (via Chromium browser) and foregrounds a selection of web apps within the browser, such as Wikipedia and even a Try Git intro to Github. The platform is generally open so Debian stack open source apps — and other Kano users’ creations — can be freely installed by the user, via a dedicated apps area on the Kano website, and via its a community area, called Kano World.
“What this allows the OS to become now is not just a little learning with coding projects, journey structured by us, but a fully featured, customizable, high powered OS that can operate on the Raspberry Pi and other [hardware] to give normal people, beginners, a way into the magic of Linux — which has been quite hard to come by,” said Alex. “We can use the OS in some ways as a translator, as a way of getting things that were once very difficult for the normal person to participate in and making them touchable, tangible.”
The same step by step coding principles are also applied to a Minecraft learning environment — which will surely be the equivalent of catnip for kids — allowing users to manipulate Minecraft elements like blocks and player positions by making changes to the code, switching between a split screen view of Kano Blocks and the Minecraft world they are manipulating.
User progress on the coding front is tracked within Kano OS via a gamification layer, composed of badges, leveling up and avatar development. The number of lines of code the user has written is tracked to give a quantification metric of their progress (along with ‘xp’ that displays usage hierarchy within Kano World). Users can save any creations they make for returning to late, and share them with the Kano World community, giving the product a fully fledged social component.
Linux — but simpler and more social
“Kano OS, our software stack, is really the jewel in the crown of Kano,” said Alex. “I’m really, really proud of what our team has been able to do. I would describe it as perhaps the most simple and intuitive Linux based operating system ever designed. And the fact that it’s been designed for a new and challenging platform like the Raspberry Pi I hope will get people excited. I hope people will try it out because it’s free and open source. Even if they don’t buy a Kano they can just use it on any Raspberry Pi.”
“It’s the fastest OS on the Raspberry Pi. It’s got the best graphical rendering, highest scores on Linpack [benchmarking] and Gtk… We focused on speed, performance, efficiency. We have beautiful 3D games, we have the ability to load up a media center, stream Al Jazeera, get YouTube channels, Google Play Music and Spotify. And importantly — what’s lovely about the OS is it in some ways strips away the traditional divisions that have existed for open source single board computing, between the hardware and the cloud. What you do on Kano OS — if you sign up for the online component — is fully integrated with Kano World, which is our online platform.
“As you build software and earn points, you’re leveling up, you’re accessing new projects made by different types of people around the world. It creates an open source experience on the Pi that feels very collaborative. It’s very alive. You never feel alone. When I first started out hacking around as a kid, I remember I always felt very alone. But I probably shouldn’t have — I was living in Seattle which was filled with nerds. But you’d be doing a little hardware project, you’d be messing around with some batch scripting, and it would all be taking place alone. You and the command line face to face.
When I first started out hacking around as a kid, I remember I always felt very alone.
“What we’ve done with Kano OS is we’ve made that command line experience, that experience of open source making, feel really collaborative. And really visual, and really intuitive… The design combines some aspects of mobile gaming, console gaming, there’s a lovely system of leveling up and character development. And all of it is participatory. So the games you make become part of a cosmos of games that have been made by people, kids, adults, all around the world. So I’m really proud of Kano OS. It’s going to continue to develop.”
If you compare Kano to a home computer of the late 1980s, such as the Spectrum, there is initially a far more linear feel — given how much step by step instruction is taking place with Kano Blocks — vs the free playground experience of a machine like the Spectrum which landed the user right in a command line view of Spectrum Basic.
By contrast Kano Blocks pesters the user with tips and direct instruction, even telling the user where to retrieve a block from or what numbers to type where. So the hand-holding feels highly micro-managed at points. Although, at other times, the hands can feel like they fall away a bit too drastically so there will undoubtedly be plenty of times kids find themselves getting stuck and having to work through a problem solving process to progress. The Blocks environment can also feel a little rough round the edges and glitchy, but that’s not surprising, given it’s just getting going.
“The possibilities are really endless. You can plug almost any game into the Kano Blocks framework and allow a kid to alter it, to change it, even if they’ve never seen a line of code in their lives.”
Kano’s Blocks environment does also provide opportunities for more freestyle hacking too, such as a non-guided Minecraft creation area which is unlocked, after the user has been stepped through more guided sets of learning hoops — and can be used to directly write code, without any dragging and dropping of blocks at all.
And — ultimately — although Kano has linear elements, given its Raspberry Pi foundation this platform is never a closed box. There are full scale text editors on tap, such as Geany and Vim. Plus, as noted above, the platform encourages extension via additional apps, and Alex talks about Kano Blocks becoming an enabler for any app on the platform to become hackable by the users.
“Kano is about the making and the playing and the learning is built in. You have to learn, in order to make and play. You couldn’t level up without it. If you weren’t able to combine a function and a variable in order to make a bridge of TNT in Minecraft you wouldn’t unlock that challenge and you wouldn’t go on to the next world,” he said.
“We are not an education company. We are a computer company. We build a computer that allows you to be creative with code. And I think the quality of the creations that come out of this — I think that attests to what people are learning. What matters most to us is that kids feel a sense of power, a sense of control.”
What’s next for Kano Computing, the startup? Staying in business is priority one of course, so that means keeping the momentum going, post-Kickstarter. On the product side, Alex said it’s specifically going to be aiming to improve and simplify Kano further, based on user feedback. Additional modular hardware elements is an area it wants to explore too — which is not surprising, given its business model is focused on selling hardware. But there’s no ignoring the software side either. Kano will need a thriving software ecosystem and an engaged community of users in order to generate the hardware sales that turn a profit.
“There’s a lot we’d like to explore related to hardware, modular hardware. Building a screen. Building a battery. Sensors, lights, robotics. We’ve started to talk with the guys at Stanford FabLab for schools — they’ve got these wonderful wafer connectors that plug, a bit like Lego, into the top of our board… and allow you to with Kano Blocks, create nice little automation scripts for a motor, a servo, or something like that. That’s a big priority on the product side,” said Alex.
“When it comes to the OS and content we’d love to continue to work with other companies, other products to bring what they do well to a single board computer which I think is emerging as a new category. And when it comes to single board computing Kano is probably the most user-friendly and interesting option out there at this price point. We want to work with people like Rovio… We’d love to work with the people at Beats Music and get a Beats Music app on there. Ultimately it is a computer and we have to have as much of an aggressive approach to the platform growth as we do to the growth of the hardware and the peripherals.”
So really Kano has its work cut out — after all, it’s building the whole kit and kaboodle: hardware, software and a social ecosystem.