Celebrating the Life of Pi
We celebrate the first birthday of the Raspberry Pi with an exclusive interview with its creators covering its first year on sale and goals for 2013
In a year when Nintendo was supposed to be taking the plaudits for its latest console; at a time when Apple was expecting punters to lap up its latest tablet and phone; during a period when small-form-factor gaming was going to be the sole preserve of the Sony PlayStation Vita, another machine was gathering column inches.
By the end of 2012, no less than The Independent newspaper was celebrating this underdog as the standout technology innovation of the year. And yet it was not one made by a well-known brand, nor one which had design aesthetics appealing to anyone but in-the-know geeks, nor a device which had dozens upon dozens of games for it.
It was the Raspberry Pi, a computer that’s barely larger than a credit card and which readers of this magazine don’t really need explaining in any greater detail. This computer has the potential to do so much more than any of the aforementioned giants and their kin, and that is because it is as much about ideology as it is about mechanics. And it has been successful, of that there is no doubt. “I really do think that this time last year we were starting to get the idea that we weren’t going to sell 10K of them,” Eben Upton, the co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation tells us. “I think we were starting to get the idea that we were going to sell tens of thousands of units. But I don’t think any of us had imagined that it would come true.”
Gathering together Eben, wife Liz and technical guru Pete Lomas for this interview was not a simple task. Despite Eben’s incredible work on the Raspberry Pi, he remains technical director and ASIC architect for Broadcom and, during a mammoth email exchange, suddenly had to change plans when he was asked to go to Los Angeles on urgent business.
Liz also has her work cut out. She is the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s only full-time worker – and that entails running the large community which has built up around the device, carrying out PR and communications work, looking after social media, taking photos and getting busy with a soldering iron when needed. On top of that, she is a professional writer and the sole blogger at gastronomydomine.com, which she has had to effectively abandon due to the mammoth Pi workload.
Then there is Pete, trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and designer of the final hardware that turned into the device so many love. But if they are busy, it is for a reason. And Pete just can’t quite believe the ride which has taken place since the first Pi was swallowed up by those eager to buy it on 29 February 2012.
“The pickup from the community has been tremendous and the amount of innovation that has come out of the back of what is a relatively simple piece of kit has been absolutely fantastic,” he says. “The way that they have been able to repurpose it from our original ideas and the way that it just teaches kids how to program and do some basic interfacing has gone stratospheric. I say that literally too, because we’ve had Pis in space.”
The large number of projects for which the Pi has been put to use has been phenomenal and the team say they still cannot believe the innovation which is evident on an almost daily basis. “Just today I was looking at a post on the blog about water droplet photography which somebody is doing with a Raspberry Pi,” says Liz. “It has been a whole year and pretty much every day there is something which we just haven’t considered. The educational stuff is working brilliantly, but there is also this huge hobbyist maker crowd out there just picking it up and running with and they are brilliant. They are really, really good people.”
One of the biggest challenges for the team has been the sheer demand for the device, and the major breakthrough came when they realised that they needed to create a licensing model for the Pi and have a UK manufacturer produce a high volume of them. The transition from a few thousand to tens of thousands went relatively smoothly in the end thanks to a lot of hard work by many people, and the complex transition has meant they now have a secure manufacturing base to take them forward. There were some bumps in the road – some customers experienced extensive delivery delays – but the biggest promise, which was to remain true to its initial price point, has held firm and it is something the Pi team remain committed to.
“That was something that, to be honest, scared me to death in the early days, because it was my responsibility to bring it in at the price points we stated,” says Pete. “It has taken us a while to get the model made at this price point, but it is now there and will be available very, very shortly at the price point that we stated. There is no doubt in the very early days where we were only making a couple of thousand to 20,000 that we would be struggling, but now we’ve got a user base, we’ve got a perception within the industry and the supplier base that allows us to get volume pricing has made that really achievable.”
The Foundation was keen not to build the Pi on charity. At no point, they say, has anyone been asked to lose money in order to keep the device affordable. “If there is not a commercial story for everyone involved, you are kind of building on sand,” says Eben. “Charity doesn’t scale, so you would get to a point where we might have gone to a component supplier and got a price that they could sustain for 20,000 or 30,000 units and then we would have got to a point where they were just losing too much money and then they would have had to have jacked the prices up. So you know, the only thing that we ever asked from our component suppliers was, in the early days, that they not penalise us for having low volumes. You know, that they should be prepared to extend to us the kind of pricing that they would give you at a million of, at our initial volumes, which were down in the sort of 10,000 range. Now, of course, we do have those kinds of volumes and it looks much more like a regular commercial business for a lot of people in the supply chain.”
The exposure of the Pi has ensured that the Foundation and its team have been thrust into the limelight of the technology industry. One thing which blindsided them, however, was EMC testing. This is required to confirm that a particular device meets the required standards and it is divided broadly into emissions testing and susceptibility testing. “We spoke to the government about it, and they said if you sell two boards, two PCBs and you are not EMC tested and you are not CE marked, you are breaking the law,” says Pete. “But they said they had a light touch regulatory regime, which means that in general they don’t get to you until you’ve sold a decent bit of volume.”
This system allows low-volume products to climb up and get to a point where they have got volume in place and they have got revenue coming in the door before they have to jump through some of those compliance hoops. The problem with the Pi’s success, however, was that it was pushed into the spotlight very early on. “We had the profile of a large electronics company before we shipped a single unit,” says Eben. “So this is the reason why we had this horrible thing in March where we had to stall; we had to stop for a couple of weeks and Pete and I were down in Cardiff, EMC-testing these boards and crossing our fingers. All of this was simply because we’d achieved a level of visibility… We stuck our necks out, beyond anything that the actual volumes that we were shipping justified. It was an interesting experience and I think we continue to be surprised by both the level of interest and also the very positive interest that we get. I think people do appreciate that we are trying to do something new.”
A major aim of the Raspberry Pi project has been for education. The team stated early on that this was their driving motivation. The much-loved BBC Micro helped to encourage a generation of programmers and it kick- started interest not just in what computers did but how they achieved it. The bare-bones system of the Raspberry Pi invites young people to play around with the technology and understand the component parts. It also gives them a way to program the device. But is it fair to say that the huge take-up of the Raspberry Pi by adults and hobbyists has had an adverse impact on the number of units available for schools and universities?
“I think there was a backlog with at least one of the suppliers until shortly before Christmas and I think that that has actually impacted some people’s ability, especially outside of the UK, to get hold of them,” says Liz. “So at the moment we are saying about 20 to 25 per cent of them are actually getting straight into the hands of kids now, which is great and although that doesn’t sound like a massive percentage, when you look at that as part of sales of around 800,000 or 900,000 units, that is actually a lot of computers going to kids.”
In the future, the Foundation is keen for after-school clubs to use them, teaching programming in the evenings. “We are seeing lots and lots of pictures from parents of kids sitting in front of the television coding,” says Liz. “Somebody last week sent me some photos of his five-year-old girl actually building games from scratch, so that has been kind of an eye- opener for the whole family. It is just really, really nice to watch with everyone pushing ahead with this stuff.”
Pete admits that getting Pis into schools was always going to be a long haul. An educational manual has been produced and they have taken on board comments from teachers. They have been encouraged by the amount of extracurricular education taking place using the Pi. Talks have been held with exam boards and there is growing interest in computer science in schools. In 2013, the educational side of the Foundation is going to be running separately from the technical side. And it is already reaping benefits.
“In September, when schools went back, we saw a great big bump in orders because a lot of teachers have been coming in now and outfitting whole classrooms,” says Liz. “We are also sending people out from the Foundation to master classes workshops, so that teachers actually get to be on top of things and [it’s] not as intimidating as some IT teachers think… One thing that I really, really like actually, is that we are seeing all the parents who are engineers, so using the Raspberry Pi as a tool to show their kids what it is that they do at work.”
It is a concept that strikes a chord for Pete, whose father was an electrical engineer. Such father-son bonding led to him becoming an engineer himself. His father would take bits of electronics home with him and Pete was inspired by what could be achieved. “We have children with their iPads, their computers and the games that they’ve been playing,” he says. “They are very comfortable with it, so they are just surprised that the Pi doesn’t come in a box and they can actually touch the bits and they can actually see the bits that do all the work. I mean I love the story about the young lad that looked at one and said ‘where is the computer?’, until somebody pointed out this little 2cm square chip in the middle and he went ‘wow, is that it?’.”
The sense that children can make a difference when programming on the Pi is noted by Eben, who says that kids coding on regular, desktop or laptop machines tend to think that the computer is responsible in some way for whatever they create. The Pi gives the illusion, he adds, that it is such a simple piece of hardware and that they are the driving force behind whatever they achieve with it. “There is a higher level of ownership of the things that the child has done,” he says. “They credit themselves more because they believe the Pi can’t possibly be as sophisticated enough to have helped them. So it must have been all their own work, you know, and that is a great thing. Again, it’s something we didn’t see coming.”
Pete agrees. “Yes I think it has [peeled away] the levels of abstraction that the kids have seen with their ‘shiny toys’ that you can’t get inside,” he says. “It has allowed them to sort of peel the onion right back to centre core and see the bit that actually does the work. Although having said that, I mean we have software systems on there that are quite sophisticated and allow them to do quite sophisticated things. But in the essence they can actually see the chip that does the work, they can even feel it getting warm when it is working hard and staying cool when it is idle. So there is a massive amount of education that comes from having this bit of computer in front of you.”
Education seems very much to be the focus for the Foundation over the next 12 months and the aim is to get through to children who do not have a teacher at school and a parent at home with computer knowledge. They are looking beyond these shores too. “I very, very much want to see the educational side of things working in other places,” says Liz. “So I have got plans this year to look at the developing world as well because there are things that we can do there, not just with computing education, but with education in general. It is a good tool and giving people access to those tools I think is very, very important, so for me that is what it is about.”
At the same time, they do not want to lose the engineering focus, with Pete in particular keen on this area. “My drive is to see some of these extension boards actually get into the mainstream and get kids using them,” he explains. “I want them to actually build out from the Pi and see what they can control and what they can monitor and what they can measure, using the Pi as a tool. I mean that is a really exciting area for me because that is the bit that I love to do.”
For Pete, computing and real life has to interact. “I just think being able to make kids enthusiastic about being able to sense temperatures, pressures, humidity, measure light, cosmic rays or anything like that, is a good thing,” he says. “It allows them to interact with the real world and it brings home what computers are really about. They are a tool to allow you to achieve other things. They are not just things to play games on – although I [must] admit to have spent most of my Christmas playing games with my nine-year-old on various products, including the Pi – but devices to capture imaginations and allow people then to say ‘wow, this is fantastic, I wonder if I can do this and I think I have got a tool in front of me that will allow me to at least try’.”
There will not, however, be a major overhaul of the platform. There will be a third revision at some point to the PCB and that will probably take the Pi very close to a state where the team are completely happy. But there are no immediate plans for a higher-performance Pi and efforts will concentrate on subsidising software development work to try to get more out of the existing platform.
For them, videogame consoles provide a good analogy. “If you compare a year-one PlayStation 3 game to a modern PS3 game they are almost unrecognisably different,” says Eben. “You would imagine they were different pieces of hardware. So it is kind of this other model where you put a marker down, you work on optimising the software experience and hardware on that. We want to look at taking cost out of the hardware, on adding incremental features to that piece of hardware rather than a revolution per year. So I guess that is probably where we are going over the next year. And also things like putting in the camera in the display board, these things that we said we would do, bringing in the model A which we said we’d do. So to some extent we are introducing new hardware, it is already bringing out stuff, it is just kind of fulfilling promises that we’ve made.”