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Raspberry Pi at 10: Cheaper than chips

We speak to the founder of Raspberry Pi about the power of a low-cost device and its appeal as an educational tool and for space-age projects

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Ten years of the Raspberry Pi

March 2012 saw the launch of a new computing device, the Raspberry Pi, Model B. Drawing inspiration from the early days of computing in schools, the Raspberry Pi has expanded way beyond low-cost educational computing to a truly flexible, general-purpose computational device.

Eben Upton, chief executive officer and founder of Raspberry Pi, was brought up on 1980s home computing and wanted to recreate something that would be a successor to the BBC Model B educational computer. When it was powered up, the BBC B booted into the Basic programming language. “Early prototypes of the Raspberry Pi were very much like a BBC B, and were built to boot into Python,” said Upton.

But by the time the first Raspberry Pi launched in 2012, it was a far more pared-down device and came with no software. Anyone who bought a Raspberry Pi Model B needed to download the RPi Linux distribution on a PC or Mac and burn the operating system image file onto a microSD memory card, which could then be used to get the Pi running.

Asked about the evolution of the first device, Upton said: “With the early prototype,  we were pushing water uphill. People thought that the Pi was just a fancy Linux computer.”

But the Pi’s designers realised they were able to tap into the Linux open source community and internet search engine, and Upton believes internet search has been the driving force behind the growth of Linux.

“It is hard to see how it could have evolved without access to search engines,” he said. “Linux is the operating system of the internet, and the internet has made Linux usable.” For instance, an internet search on Linux delivers Raspberry Pi answers.

Discussing the success of the Raspberry Pi, Upton said: “The device was supposed to be a contribution to catalyse and reboot computing. We never intended it to be profitable, but we have made money to support the [Raspberry Pi] Foundation and do more traditional charitable work.”

And what has Upton been most proud of? “We wanted to increase applications of computer science undergraduates at Cambridge,” he said. “I’m proud of being able to do something for my university.” Applications for studying computer science at Cambridge University have expanded from 200 to 1,500, he added.

Inspired by Pi

David Pride is one of those who was inspired by the original Raspberry Pi. He had a tough time at school and left formal education in 1986 with an O-level in economics. He recently completed a PhD and now works as a research associate at the Knowledge Management Institute, Open University.

Discussing his life as a school leaver with virtually no formal qualifications, Pride said: “There were three million people on the dole and no training opportunities. University was not an option. It was not even on the radar at that point.” His one escape during school was the computer room, where he effectively lived, he said. 

After working abroad and returning to the UK, Pride built a 15-person business. But he admits he was not excited. “I was very bored because building the company was the fun part,” he said.

Pride recalls that it was a very dark time when eventually he had to let the staff go. “It was just horrible,” he said.

On a visit to Bletchley Park, home of the Second World War codebreakers, Pride and his wife visited the National Museum of Computing, which hosts Colossus, the cipher decoding computer designed by genius Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers. But it was a poster advertising a Raspberry Pi Jam, an event running a few days later, that seized his imagination.

Pride took an online course from Rice University to learn Python, and although he had only one O-level and no further education qualifications, this was a foundational module that enabled him to apply successfully for an MSc course at Hertfordshire University, where he achieved a distinction. In 2020, Pride attained a PhD.

His current role is as a research associate working on the On-Merrit project looking at the Matthew Effect in Open Science and the ramifications for responsible research metrics.

However, the Raspberry Pi also inspired a whole generation of people who grew up with 1980s home computing. “Those devices were a ladder that put you on a slippery slope to computer science,” said Upton. “But this wasn’t fantastic from a gender diversity perspective.”

The tech sector still remains predominantly male, he said, adding: “We have to reach beyond the hard core of people who are naturally drawn to computing.”

But groups such as Code Club are helping to inspire a whole new generation of kids and, as Upton noted, half of them are girls.

For Upton, the Raspberry Pi has become serendipitous and is being used in application areas that not everyone considered would be possible. The supercomputing facility at Los Alamos is one such example.

“From a central planning perspective, we thought about giving Pis out to kids, but once you make them at scale, people start doing very different things,” he said. “We never thought of them being used to build models of supercomputers. No one sits down in focus groups and says that.”

Another example is the team that built a picosatellite, based on a Pi Zero and a camera, which was recently deployed from the International Space Station. “They put a Pi Zero and camera with a downlink to Utah in space,” said Upton.

More down to Earth, Raspberry Pis are being used to power continuous integration farms, and there are even companies offering Pi in the cloud as a service, he added. 

The original Raspberry Pi has been expanded. There is a fully fledged microcomputer system, the Raspberry Pi 400, the low-cost Pi Zero and now a microcontroller, the Raspberry Pi Pico. In a recent blog post, Upton said the Raspberry Pi Pico is the first product powered by the company’s own microcontroller, RP2040. Since its launch, nearly 1.5 million Picos and have been sold, he added.

“Thousands of you have used RP2040 in your own electronic projects and products,” Upton wrote in the blog post. “As RP2040 products begin to ramp to scale, and the global semiconductor shortage has transmuted most other microcontrollers into unobtainium, we’ve started to see people asking to buy tens of thousands of chips at a time.”

The Raspberry Pi may not have the appeal of some shiny new consumer electronics products, but its launch in 2012 was an historic moment in UK computing and showed the world the power of a low-cost, general-purpose computing device.

Read more Pi stories

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