'We thought we'd sell 1,000': The inside story of the Raspberry Pi

'We thought we'd sell 1,000': The inside story of the Raspberry Pi

Summary: The $35 Linux Raspberry Pi computer has sparked a coding revolution. Here's the inside story of the Pi, from its inspiration and development to plans for its future.

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Eben Upton
Raspberry Pi designer Eben Upton, pictured at the Sony factory in Pencoed. Image: Nick Heath

Eben Upton's overwhelming emotion at having co-created a $35 Linux computer that sold in the hundreds of thousands last year is surprise.

The 34-year-old chip architect is genuinely taken aback that demand for the Raspberry Pi proved to be orders of magnitude larger than a small pool of aspiring UK computer engineers.

"We honestly did think we would sell about 1,000, maybe 10,000 in our wildest dreams. We thought we would make a small number and give them out to people who might want to come and read computer science at Cambridge," he told ZDNet.

The first inkling of the fervour the credit card-sized board would create came in May 2011, when the first public outing of the Pi in a BBC video generated some 600,000 views on YouTube.

Upton and his colleagues revised their initial run of boards up to 10,000, thinking that would be more than enough to meet demand.

It wasn't. The 10,000 boards sold out within hours of going on sale in February last year, with an incredible 100,000 boards ordered on that first day.

Today more than 700,000 Raspberry Pi computers have been shipped to modders who are fitting them to robotic drones in the sky and underwater, to hobbyists designing home automation systems, and to wannabe coders looking to build their first programs.

Humble Pi

So what, exactly, is the Raspberry Pi?

The Pi is a credit card-sized device and one of the lowest-cost computers available. At first glance it looks nothing like what is generally considered a computer, nothing more than a bare board and ports, but it is perfectly capable.

Raspberry Pi : Vital statistics

  • Broadcom BCM 2835 chipset
  • ARM1176JZFS chip with a floating point co-processor, running at 700MHz
  • Videocore IV GPU, capable of BluRay quality playback, using H.264 at 40MBits/s
  • Ships with OpenGL ES2.0 and OpenVG libraries
  • HDMI out
  • Model B: 512MB of memory, two USB ports and a 10/100 BaseT Ethernet port
  • Model A: 256MB of memory, one USB port

The board is powerful enough to stream 1080p video, browse the web or write documents, and it was designed to be portable enough to carry around without breaking. A number of distros of Linux run on the Raspberry Pi, including ArchLinux, Debian "wheezy" and Raspbian — a Pi-optimised version of Debian.

Raspberry Pi provides OS images for download here. Most are bundled with programming aids such as IDEs and the drag-and-drop programming software Scratch. Programming tools are easily available from the desktop and Upton wants future OS images to boot the board straight into a programming environment.

Putting these tools front and centre is designed to inspire tinkering. The Pi is there to encourage a similar taste for experimenting with computers that was inspired by the blinking Basic programming prompt of the Acorn BBC Micro in the 1980s.

There are two versions of the board, the Model A and the Model B. The Model B is on sale through Premier Farnell and RS Components. The Model A will go on sale in the first quarter of this year.

The origin story

Despite engineering one of the unexpected computing success stories of 2012, however, Eben Upton and his colleagues didn't even set out to build a computer.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation was established with the goal of inspiring the next generation of programmers: it just turned out they felt the best way of doing that was to provide a computer cheap enough for kids and easy enough for them to hack.

Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi model B sold out in hours when it went on sale in February 2012.

"I looked at our founding documents and nowhere in there does it say 'We'll make a small computer'. What it says is 'We want to get kids programming'," he said, while giving ZDNet a tour of the Raspberry Pi factory in South Wales.

Upton's passion for nurturing the next generation of coders was born out of the frustration he felt when helping manage undergraduate admissions to study computer science at Cambridge University in the mid-2000s. In the 10 years since he'd studied computer science at the university he said students had gone from arriving with knowledge of several assembly and high-level languages to a working knowledge of HTML, Javascript and maybe a bit of PHP.

"The kids [coming to university to study computer science] haven't had the opportunity to do much programming before they come in the door," he said.

"It would have been heartbreaking if it turned out that kids aren't interested" — Eben Upton

"You've got to put in your 10,000 hours and it's a lot easier to put in the 10,000 hours if you start when you're 18," he said.

Despite Upton's belief that kids are still interested in coding, he was nervous about showing the Pi to young people for the first time, a fear born out of the received wisdom that they are interested in playing with smartphones and social networks but not the underlying technology that makes them work.

"I think I'd been avoiding testing my hypothesis just in case. We took them into a school a week before we launched and these kids went crazy for them," he said.

"It's been great to see that we had this theory that kids still want to program, and it would have been heartbreaking if it turned out that kids aren't interested."

Upton believes it is the feeling of being able to control a machine that gets kids hooked on programming in the first place.

"It's that sense of power in making a computer do a thing — it's 'I made a cat move'. Because the Pi's simple and bare bones if you make it do something, they seem to feel they can own it, more so than making a PC do something," he said.

Building the boards

Meeting demand far in excess of what the Foundation planned for posed a challenge. As the Pi was getting ready to launch, the operation to build and ship the boards — from booking factory time to purchasing the chips — fell to the relatively modest resources of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charitable body initially funded by loans from Upton and five other trustees.

"That would have been fine at 10,000 boards, but there was not a hope in hell that we'd be able to scale that up to build 100,000," he explained.

"We would have struggled in two ways...

Topics: Hardware, Mobile OS, Open Source, United Kingdom, The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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65 comments
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  • This is the problem with the west.

    Celebrities are revered, footballers put on a pedestal. Everyone wants to be famous.

    Engineers, Software Coders, and anyone technical are scorned and made fun of.

    Compare that to the East....
    Bozzer
    • Compare that to the East

      Bozzer, you remind me of Gilbert and Sullivan who mocked people like you who praise "every century but this and every country but his own."
      jquinnjr
      • That was brilliant

        love it and dead on. Grass is always greener!
        ScanBack
    • Compare

      "Celebrities are revered, footballers put on a pedestal. Everyone wants to be famous"
      Yes, of course, that does not happen in the East...
      Badolato
    • The fact that these guys are now millionaires

      and being written about in news articles kind of puts the lie to your assertion.
      baggins_z
    • Compare that to the East

      where party leaders are literally put on pedestals in every town.
      I bet you have not lived in a real Eastern country. I did.
      It is not pretty to be an engineer there, trust me.
      ForeverSPb
    • Coders

      You mean like Jobs, Wozniac, Gates, Balmer and...
      DT2
    • A new field of people growing.

      I see we have a new field growing. HATE-BAIT.
      In a world where we're SUPPOSED to be getting along, there are a growing number of people baiting hatred.
      Interesting, where do you reside?
      fm-usa
    • Its a case of "Welcome to the real world of IT Mr. Upton".

      Just to show you how hes learning quick just how trashy people who work in this industry way too often are, I like this quote from Upton:

      "I do find it annoying that people, and sometimes the manufacturers, naively claim that they're faster than the Pi when in practice they aren't."

      If the Pi ever gets to a point where its getting some press at a place like ZDNet and many readers are putting Pi like devices to use, hes really going to freak when, or if he reads user comments from users of competing products.

      It will be an endless barrage of "The Raspberry Pi is crap", "Raspberry Pi is finished", "Raspberry Pi cant compete", "Raspberry Pi is just a company out for a money grab". Others of course will be saying…”I don’t believe that’s true, I use the Pi, works great for me…”

      Boy. If it starts for him, hes going to be both shocked and perhaps more than a little dismayed at the business he is in. If hes annoyed that a cheezball manufacturer claims over rated performance specs on their competing product, hes going to be really ticked at the implausible immaturity of common IT people using like minded products who have come to hate him and what he represents, as well as his product, that they will claim to be trash simply because they have chosen to go with another similar product from someone else.

      The IT industry really is so peculiar that way. Too many IT people sound ready to kill your dog just because you insist you really like the product you use and don’t find the reasons others like a different product so compelling.
      Cayble
  • Just hype

    "The $35 Linux Raspberry Pi computer has sparked a coding revolution"

    - I really don't believe this has started a coding revolution. Selling a $35 board won't start a revolution. When you add a monitor and other peripherals, the cost will be same as an entry level laptop.
    Owlll1net
    • Most costumers probably already got access to a screen or TV.

      Keyboard and mouse can be found dirt cheap. If you settle for used ones, you most likely know someone not using their old peripherials.
      Oden79
    • Agreed

      From all the web sites on stuff done with the Raspberry pi, it looks like the majority of the buyers and owners of the Raspberry pi are not students. Seems that the goal stated in the founding documents is not met.

      They should have made a $3 USB-GPIO board instead. Kids today already have lots of computing power at their disposal.
      SueBill
      • In the photo on page 3

        Not a single one looks like a kid.

        The Raspberry pi will be well liked. If, for example, I have a need to drive an electronic signboard, I would get a Raspberry pi. Cheap and space saving.
        SueBill
        • Not a Single One?

          It looks like there are a couple of kids in the lower left hand corner. It's possible some of the others I can't see as well are kids also, especially if you extend "kid" to mean anyone under 18.
          CFWhitman
      • They should??

        Why is it always "THEY"? What's wrong with YOU doing it?
        inkwell
        • What's wrong with him doing it?

          Could be he's not a chip architect?
          William Farrel
          • There's nothing stopping anyone hiring one.

            Where's your entrepreneurial spirit?
            Zogg
          • Yes there is. It's called cash

            It's one thing to design something like this for free in your spare time.

            Takes money to hire someone to do it for you.
            William Farrel
          • So you've never heard of "venture capital".

            Look it up.
            Zogg
          • Idea, Ability, Design, Viability, Production: A process

            Zogg and all;
            There are many aspects to realising an idea.
            Processes involve differing aspects - in people, available qualities.
            A major factor behind the stimulai to your expression, is that,
            We need each other. The, 'why doesn't he/she -just- do this or that is an indicator of this.
            A genius at one end, may be an idiot at the other - roughly put.
            Your comment gives the opportunity to show that we are in need of increasing our awareness of our mutual dependance, without indicating a need or requirement to lose our independance.
            Our dependance on profit and distorted view of competitive environment has been and still is an aggravation and hindrance to mankind - one that is rapidly being noted (both by those who 'profit' from it as well as 'the rest of us')
            Best regards.
            QaaUz