Eben Upton on Raspberry Pi's first store, expansion and the next Pi computer
Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton says the organisation's first store will help the organisation further its original aim of broadening access to computing.
The company behind the bargain price, credit-card size computers caused a stir when it launched the Raspberry Pi Store on the first-floor of the Grand Arcade in Cambridge in early February.
Replacing a unit occupied by Crew Clothing, the shop offers a chance for people to try the computers before they buy, get advice from experts and access add-ons and peripherals. It is expected that talks and events will take place in the store, which is managed by Oli Wilkin, the former manager of the Maplin shops in Cambridge.
Eben, the creator of the Raspberry Pi and chief executive of Raspberry Pi Trading, tells the Cambridge Independent: “We are looking to connect with a broader audience. We have extremely strong credentials in the formal education space, and with the makers/hackers, who are very technically astute. But if we want to meet our goal of really broadening access we need to reach people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be particularly technical and who, probably wrongly, may not feel they have the capacity in them to understand technical subjects.
“It’s a big ask for those people to just buy a Raspberry Pi, unseen, without knowing what it is, and it’s also a big risk because if they buy it and don’t know what to do with it, they’ll become dispirited.
“So the idea is to have somewhere people can try before they buy, where people can talk to experts and also somewhere where we can observe and interact with the broader group of consumers, so we can understand what we’re doing wrong.”
That attention to continual improvement is a hallmark of Raspberry Pi, and a sign of the relentless drive and enthusiasm that has propelled it to astonishing heights.
It is now the the world’s third biggest-selling general purpose computer of all time.
But shifting Raspberry Pis is far from the sole motivation behind the store.
“The front half of the store is very experiential space, with a table of Raspberry Pis and pods down the walls that showcase different things you can do with them,” says Eben.
“I think it will be a lovely venue for talks and meetings – possibly early and late on Sundays, when we can only trade for six hours. Sunday morning feels like it might be a nice opportunity to get people in and do interesting stuff. It further underscores the fact that this is as much about experiences as it is about moving money and goods across a desk.”
A number of staff who previously worked with Oli at Maplin have joined him to run the store, which will open seven days a week.
“I’ve been amazed the number of hours and effort needed to get the store open,” says Eben.
“It is quite minimalist compared to a Maplin! But we have a shelf of first-party products of pretty everything we make, including this new starter kit we’ve developed to give people a simple out-of-the-box experience.
“We then have one or two shelves from other partners in our ecosystem: add-on boards, cases, things that work well with the Pi.
“We’ve also got more generic electronic items – we’ve got a great tie-up with Sony, so we have Sony speakers and headphones. We’ve got hard drives, battery packs and replacement laptop power supplies. That’s a big deal in Cambridge – people are forever coming to conferences and forgetting their power supplies!
“Then we have tools – soldering irons, multimeters – a pocket version of things you can buy in electrical shops.
“But there is a big focus on our ecosystem – people who have innovated around Raspberry Pi.”
The early reaction has been encouraging and there are plenty of Raspberry Pi devotees around the world already hoping that their city might be next in line.
“It’s been very positive,” says Eben. “There was good footfall on the first day. Obviously part of that is we are new. I was stood at the back, looking out, and everybody’s head turned. People would slow down and come in. That’s a good sign that we’ve created a space which is welcoming.
“I’m hopeful. We’ve certainly enjoyed working with Raspberry Pi as a landlord and we are looking forward to seeing if we can make it fly.
“If we make a success in Cambridge, we can probably make it go in Oxford. There are a handful of university towns – Bath, Edinburgh, Bristol, York – where we could probably make it work.
“It’s down to market proposition. The best case is we find we have something that could be rolled out more extensively but the Cambridge store will need to demonstrate its ability to at least break even before we think about others.
“On Twitter, there are a number of Americans who have been naming their home town as the ideal first place for a US store... Dallas, Philadelphia, various places on the West Coast.”
Some of those voices are coming from within Raspberry Pi itself.
“Gordon Hollingworth, my director of software engineering, was the original brains behind this.
“He lobbied for this as a project and recruited Oli to run it,” says Eben. “A lot of the furniture is custom-made but we’ve got a certain amount from Ikea. Gordon said: ‘So when we open our first store in New York, we can go to Ikea in New York and buy the same thing.’
“Have I signed up to something bigger than I realised?
“But it’s wonderful to be doing it. When we opened the doors and people started coming in, it was fun.”
The appetite for Raspberry Pi’s machines looks as strong as ever.
“We sold six million units last year – 500,000 units a month. That feels sustainable. People are still interested and excited by it,” says Eben.
Last year, the Raspberry Pi 3B+ was released, boasting a 1.4GHz 64-bit quad-core processor, dual-band wireless LAN, Bluetooth, faster ethernet and power-over-ethernet support. It sells for £34.
“It was an incremental improvement in my mind,” says Eben. “People have a threshold in their mind about where the product needs to be to be useful to them. Even a 20-30 per cent improvement that we posted last year pushes it over the line for a whole new group of people.
“For the next main Raspberry Pi we’ve said no earlier than 2020. We released a product last year and had a backlog of unlaunched products – things that have got 90 per cent through production and then stalled for one reason or another.
“We are working through that and have been launching a product a month for some time now.
“We’re getting towards the end of that backlog and that will enable us to focus on what Raspberry Pi 4 might look like, once we figure out what chip to build it on and what amount of money we can built it for.”
No doubt that will prompt millions more to buy another slice of Pi.
Raspberry Pi: The world's third biggest-selling computer
Raspberry Pi became the world’s third biggest-selling general purpose computer of all time in March 2017, after selling 12.5 million boards in five years.
Having surpassed the Commodore 64, it now lies only behind the two giants of world computing – the Windows PC and Apple Macintosh.
The Commodore 64, along with the BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum, was one of the inspirations behind Raspberry Pi.
These early easily programmable computers sparked an interest in coding that Eben realised was getting gradually eroded in the age of the games console, with applications to computer science degrees at Cambridge dropping by around 10 per cent a year after 2000 at a time when the demand for software engineers was beginning to soar.
Eben once memorably told the Cambridge Independent: “Just before we started, I went to a party in Soham and I met this boy aged about eight who said he really wanted to be a programmer. I said to him, ‘What computer have you got?’ And he said, ‘Nintendo Wii’. That was one of those totemic things where you see this kid who has got this aspiration but the world around him has been set up to thwart him.”
Eben, who said he was “tricked into being a programmer” by his BBC Micro, created a no-frills credit card-sized machine for £25, which didn’t even come in a box, and mortgaged his house to buy the first 10,000 components.
They sold 100,000 units on day one… and haven’t looked back since. By the end of 2017, 17 million Raspberry Pis had been sold.
The organisation’s educational work is carried out through the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping people around the world access the world of computing.
More than 10,000 Code Clubs are helping young people learn coding, while millions have learned with its online projects.
Two magazines join portfolio
Not content with opening its first store, Raspberry Pi has also purchased two magazines.
Custom PC and Digital SLR Photography magazines have been purchased by Raspberry Pi Trading from Dennis Publishing.
Eben Upton told the Cambridge Independent: “I’ve been shopping! Ever since I was a kid I’ve liked buying magazines…
“They are brilliant titles and complement the ones we have. We think they should work for us commercially. Our business models plus their circulation figures works as a proposition.
“The first Custom PC under our brand came out last week. One thing we did was improve the paper stock. We are obsessive about paper stock. It’s amazing how much more wonderful it feels.”
The magazines join an existing portfolio that includes The Magpi and Hackspace Magazine. And last October, Raspberry Pi Press – a subsidiary of Raspberry Pi Trading – also launched Wireframe, a gaming magazine.
But if Custom PC seems a natural fit, how does Digital SLR fit in?
“It’s a common focus on creativity,” says Eben. “It was available and we met the team who produce it.
“They are extremely talented and very committed. They are the people who launched it, built it up themselves and sold it to Dennis. It’s a good title.
“Both titles have faded a little bit, so we’re going to find ways to put more resource into them to allow them to be all they can be. The paper stock is a very early example.”
And Eben might need some tips from the Digital SLR team as he admits his photography skills do not match his coding credentials.
“There is a big crossover between hardcore geeks and photographers. But I have a cellphone with a camera. My wife, Liz, will say ‘Did you even frame that?’ I don’t even know what ‘frame’ means. My wife is a micro four-thirds user. There is a setting that she calls ‘stupid husband mode’...”
More by this authorPaul Brackley