As £9.60 Zero Wireless computer is released, we speak to Eben Upton about the remarkable life of Raspberry Pi
Cambridge's Raspberry Pi is celebrating its fifth year of bringing super cheap computers to the world with a Pi Party and the release of its latest Zero Wireless device. Paul Brackley talks to the creator about this amazing success story.
‘What I was trying to do was deal with this decline in kids using computers,” says Eben Upton, the creator of Raspberry Pi and co-founder of its charity, the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
“I was born in 1978 and computing was really hot – it was the thing everyone wanted to do and lots of people at my school programmed computers. Some went on to Cambridge. The problem is we don’t teach engineering at school so there’s always been a recruitment problem, but computers gave kids a route into that – and into power. As a kid you have no power, but a computer will do what you tell it. The day I got my BBC Micro, the Lego went in the drawer…
“It was wonderful for the university because they had this supply of self-trained people. They had overcome this imagination barrier and had people who spent 10 years training themselves.”
But this enthusiasm for programming and computer science began to fall away as these early home computers were replaced by games consoles.
“In 1996 , I came to Cambridge, there were 600-700 people applying for a computer science course and that stayed fairly constant in the 90s because even as the supply of kids trained on BBC Micros fell away, there was the idea of the dot com meal ticket and that kept us going,” recalls Eben.
“After 2000, we saw very rapid decline – 10 per cent down year on year. It was down to 200 applicants in 2008. We never got to the point where we didn’t let anyone in who was good – but we were letting everyone who was good in.
“It was because of games consoles – that’s the hypothesis. I got tricked into being a programmer by my BBC Micro, but PlayStation and Xbox are designed not to be programmable because the people who produce them want to monopolise the supply of games.
“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’s solution sounds like it really shouldn’t have worked. He created a £25 no-frills, credit card-sized computer. It didn’t even come in a box. But you could connect it to the internet, to a keyboard and display and you could programme it. It was transformative and captured the imagination of a generation.
“We asked, ‘Can we make something cheap, programmable, fun and robust like a Spectrum or BBC Micro?’” says Eben, whose original investors were his mum and dad.
“This is something I’d been working on from 2006 and we got going in 2012. There were periods when I gave up on it. But my family always believed in it. I remember saying to Mum, ‘I’ve got a great idea for publishing’ and she said, ‘Don’t do that, do Raspberry Pi’. That was good advice.”
It certainly was. But Eben encountered some nervous moments getting Pi to market.
“I remember mortgaging my house to buy the first 10,000 components for Raspberry Pi. Now we’re like ‘I’ll have half a million of those please…’
“Like a lot of people, we thought if you want to build things cheaply you’ll have to do it in China.
“So I took the money and I bought some chips with them. You can’t send chips very easily to Shenzhen in southern China. You have to send them to Hong Kong and then they get taken across the land border with special customs treatment for goods that are transhipped via Hong Kong.
“The guy who was building them had an outfit so small that his transhipment point was a flat, so I wired him $50,000 and sent him $50,000 worth of chips to this place in Hong Kong.
Raspberry Pi Zero Wireless: The spec
■ 1GHz, single-core CPU
■ 512MB RAM
■ Mini HDMI and USB On-The-Go ports
■ Micro USB power
■ HAT-compatible 40-pin header
■ Composite video and reset headers
■ CSI camera connector
■ 802.11n wireless LAN
■ Bluetooth 4.0
“He told me it would be three weeks. Three weeks went past – nothing. Four weeks went past – then it was Chinese New Year, so nothing happened. Five weeks, six weeks… and then a box of 10 of them turned up. Two thousand was our original order. I take the first one out and boot it up. Everything works but the Ethernet is dead. Second one and third one were the same. The guy had misread our spec.”
After a bit of soldering to put a magnetic jack in place, it worked.
“He got the rest right – 1,950 turned up. That’s when I knew we had something,” says Eben.
Still, he had no idea what was about to happen.
“We couldn’t go raising money even once we’d proved we could manufacture them and make a small profit because we are a not-for-profit,” he explains. “So we turned ourselves into an IP licensing company, inspired by ARM. So what Raspberry Pi does now is designs the Pi and maintains the brand and licences to our two partners, Premier Farnell/Element14 and RS Components/Allied Electronics.
“At the point where I did the IP licensing deal, I sold each of them half of the units. I retained a few boxes and sold 750 for their launch day stock. Together they sold 100,000 on the first day. They had 98,500 in back orders!”
Eben celebrated at what is now the Punter pub in Cambridge with lots of people from Cambridge Science Park-based firm Broadcom, who had helped designed the chip.
Raspberry Pi 2 followed in 2015 and 3 came a year later. To date, 12 million units have been sold.
“We’ve outsold Alan Sugar now. At five million, we passed the Spectrum. The Amstrad PCW sold eight million. This gets us level with the Commodore 64,” says Eben.
The cult machine drew a huge hobbyist following, with amateur programmers creating everything from games and talking toys to nature camera traps, robots, radios and media centres using the device.
Suddenly, it became a mini industry of its own.
“There are a lot of companies in the UK now that have built up around Raspberry Pi,” says Eben. “There’s an outfit in Sheffield who employ 40-50 people building accessories and distributing Raspberry Pis. They’ve just started up in Germany now. But the surprise with Raspberry Pi was massive interest from teaching.”
The Picademy operates intensive two-day teacher training courses to help teachers learn to teach computer science.
“The Government has fixed the ICT curriculum but it hasn’t made the corresponding investment in teacher training,” says Eben. “There are 25,000 schools and the Government investment in teacher training was £2million – £80 a school.”
Raspberry Pi helped fill the gap and got support from Google. Last week, it celebrated its 1,000th Raspberry Pi-certified educator.
“We also ran a special Picademy called Skycademy so primary school kids can have a space programme. It goes 40km up on a weather balloon – two-fifths of the way to space but up there it looks like space: the sky is black, the Earth is curved. This costs £250.”
Pi in the Sky is one of Eben’s favourite uses for the machine.
“I like the space ones and I really enjoy ones that cross over. The nature camera trap started as a hobbyist thing but it became a kickstarter so it was a small business that serves education,” he says.
Of course, Pi went to space with British astronaut Tim Peake.
“We did a whole bunch of stuff with Tim Peake. I have never met him, but apparently he’s the nicest guy. He’s going up again and I hope he’ll do more AstroPi. We’re doing stuff with a French astronaut now.”
The Foundation is also offering resources for teachers and learners, continuing Pi’s focus on self-directed learning. Code Clubs are springing up in primary schools, inspired by Pi.
“The question that parents ask now is not ‘What’s a Code Club but does this school have a Code Club?” says expectant father Eben, who says seeing the inspiration that Pi brings children is his driving motivation.
“That’s what keeps us going,” he says. And the number of applications for computer science places at Cambridge is back up to about 800.
Raspberry Pi Trading, which Eben heads up, funds the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity which is the company’s sole shareholder.
“It was never the intention to do charitable work, but because we’ve been successful we’ve been able to fund the foundation’s work. That’s incredibly satisfying. The thing that allows you to do that is the quality of the staff. I’ve staffed Raspberry Pi with the smartest people I’ve ever met,” he says.
The foundation also has a terrific pedigree. Its trustees include serial entrepreneur David Cleevely, founder of Cambridge Angels, and investor and adviser Sherry Coutu.
“So I’ve been running around hoovering up engineering and publishing talent for Raspberry Pi Trading and Philip Colligan, who joined us as chief executive of the foundation, has been hoovering up talent in the charitable area. We had six people in the foundation and now we’ve got 50,” says Eben. “Meanwhile, David Cleevely has been hoovering up talent on the board and it’s like a Who’s Who.”
Many of the ideas are featured in MagPi, Raspberry Pi’s magazine. One issue even gave away a $5 Zero computer on the front.
“We had a sell through rate of 99 per cent. There were all these signs in WH Smith saying ‘We don’t have any left’,” laughs Eben.
It was this machine that inspired the new device, released yesterday (Tuesday). Zero Wireless is a $10 machine with wifi and Bluetooth.
“I think people will be happy about Zero Wireless but they may be surprised we haven’t refreshed the main product. But Raspberry Pi 3 is more likely to be a three- or four-year product. Zero Wireless fills a gap while we’re on a fixed platform,” explains Eben. So what’s next?
“You will see a lot of software work from us,” says Eben. “My personal goal is I want to get one on Mars. That would be good. I love space stuff…”
The Rasberry Pi Zero Wireless
Raspberry Pi launched its latest model on Tuesday February 28, 2017 ahead of its Big Birthday Weekend at the Cambridge Junction. It is holding a PiParty packed with workshops – visit raspberrypi.org/events/big-birthday-weekend-2017/.
The new device is called Zero Wireless and is priced at £9.60 (or $10 plus tax if you prefer round numbers) and is an upgrade to its earlier Zero device, adding Bluetooth and wireless functionality.
Liz Upton, director of communications at Raspberry Pi, said: “The addition of wireless connectivity frees up the USB port – no dongles are needed for internet or for wireless mouse/keyboard now – which is something we were seeing a lot of demand for. It adds a lot of flexibility. We’re looking forward to seeing what people do with it!”
A new injection moulded case with interchangeable lids is available too.
More by this authorPaul Brackley