Microsoft Shrinks MakeCode to Make MicroCode, a Portable Programming Tool for the BBC micro:bit V2

Usable without an active internet connection — or even a desktop or laptop — MicroCode minimizes distractions.

Gareth Halfacree
28 days agoProductivity

Microsoft has announced a spin-off from the MakeCode project, its browser-based visual programming environment for targets including the BBC micro:bit family, which aims to address its core usability hurdle: the need for an active internet connection at all times.

"Despite the success of the [MakeCode] platform," a team of Microsoft researchers and engineers admit, "now used in over 60 countries with more than eight million [BBC] micro:bits, it faces challenges, such as the need for a continuous internet connection and access to a computer, which can be limiting in non-classroom environments and distracting due to competing online content."

Microsoft is aiming to address issues with its MakeCode platform with MicroCode, an on-device visual programming environment for the BBC micro:bit V2. (📷: Jacdac)

The solution proposed by Microsoft's team is to swap MakeCode out for MicroCode, presently specifically targeting the more recent BBC micro:bit V2. "We take advantage of the […] micro:bit V2's increased memory and speed [which] allows the micro:bit to host the programming environment and run user code at the same time," the team, which includes Microsoft staff and researchers from Lancaster University in the UK, explains.

MicroCode, as the name suggests, is smaller than MakeCode — small enough to fit entirely within the 128kB memory on the BBC micro:bit V2. Using an off-the-shelf carrier board with input buttons and a color display, originally designed for creating simple arcade games, the user can create programs directly on-device for immediate execution. The concept is already well-proven: MicroCode is heavily inspired by Kodu, a visual programming environment targeting learners between five and 11 years old.

"By simplifying the process of updating programs in real-time," the team claims of the results of a study carried out across three schools in the UK, "MicroCode has expanded the learning context to include activities such as outdoor data collection. Furthermore, this innovative tool has inspired teachers to explore the integration of physical computing into a broader curriculum, transcending traditional boundaries of computing education."

The MicroCode study was presented at the 23rd annual ACM Interaction Design and Children (IDC) Conference; a copy is available under open-access terms on the Microsoft website. MicroCode itself has been published on GitHub under the permissive MIT license. A web-app version is also available, though this naturally has the same always-online requirement of MakeCode itself.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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