'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.

SHARE:

...the rest of the industry's penchant for overhauling its products on an annual basis. Upton warns not to expect any imminent announcements about new versions of the Pi or substantial price changes.

"There will be a successor at some point. I think 2013 isn't the right time to do it. I don't want to orphan the 700,000 Raspberry Pis that are already out there," he said.

fish-pi
Above, Fish Pi, a project to build an automated boat; one of the many uses that modders have found for the Raspberry Pi. Image: Fish Pi

Upton prefers to focus on incremental upgrades to the existing boards. The model B has already received a boost to its memory, from 256MB to 512MB, and Upton is keen to stress the ongoing software optimisation, both by the Foundation and Pi users. The software, he points out, is just as important as the hardware.

"We can improve performance by further optimising the software. ARM 11 didn't see an enormous amount of targeted optimisation, so there's a lot of low-hanging fruit" — Eben Upton

"We can improve performance by further optimising the software. ARM 11 didn't see an enormous amount of targeted optimisation, so there's a lot of low-hanging fruit," he said.

"One of the things we've been doing recently is paying people to crawl over Linux, profile it, find out why it's slow and make it fast."

The benefits of this optimisation are evident when comparing the slightly sluggish desktop of the Linux Debian distro available for the Pi at launch to that of the relatively nippy Raspbian distro, which has been customised for the Pi's hardware.

By rewriting OS software functions to suit the Pi's ARM V6 architecture, underlying hardware operations have been sped up, for instance memcopy and memset operations were given a 2x and 7x speed boost respectively.

"If you talked to people who used the Pi from May through to now, in August people saw a really big kick-up in performance," said Upton.

For Upton more important than making the Pi faster is making it easier to use, or at least easier to start programming on. He wants the Pi to boot straight into a programming environment like Scratch, the drag-and-drop programming tool made by MIT, much as the BBC Micro greeted you with a BASIC programming prompt when you turned it on.

"I'm a big fan of having it boot into a programming environment. It's Apple-like optimisation, taking options out of a platform to make it better," he said, adding that hidden features would be easy to gain access to if users wanted additional control.

Bug fixing is also an ongoing process for the device, particularly drivers for the Pi's USB controller, which has had a number of software bug fixes via kernel updates.

Most of the Pi's well-documented USB problems, Upton said, stemmed from the way that USB 1.0 traffic is packaged on top of the USB 2.0 link between the system-on-a-chip and the hub chip.

Upton said that while there had been a time when a number of USB peripherals were failing or not working as expected, there were now only problems in a handful of fringe cases.

Enter the Model A

The $25 Model A Raspberry Pi will also ship in the first quarter of this year. The board doesn't include the ethernet port, has only has 256MB of RAM — half that of the Model B — and only one USB port. The board consumes less power than the Model B and so is suitable for use in battery-powered robotics devices.

Upton said that while the 512MB board is suited to people who want to run the Pi as a computer, the 256MB is fine for people who want to use the board as a media centre, for robotics or embedded computing.

The Foundation originally planned to release the Model A last year but Upton said it had had to wait until its manufacturing partners were able to meet demand for the Model B boards before it could start selling the Model A, as both boards use the same Broadcom 2835 chipset.

Competitors

One factor that helped ensure the Pi's success is the lack of alternative machines offering the same mix of performance and capabilities at such a low price. Since the Pi's release other boards have gone on sale that have been touted as capable of snatching the Pi's low-cost crown. One example is the $49 Cubieboard, a 1GHz board based on the ARM Cortex A8 processor with 512MB or 1GB of memory.

Bristol Jam
Fans gather at the Bristol Jam event in August to show off inventions based on the Raspberry Pi. Image: Richard Pitkin/BB Science Park

The numbers might at first glance suggest these boards are faster and more capable than the 700MHz Pi. But Upton insists that in true performance terms, there is nothing on the market that has him worried.

He points out that the Cubieboard and other potential Pi killers are...

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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

65 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • 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