Ripples from the Raspberry Pi

 

Eben Upton on Raspberry Pi's new camera

In May last year, video games entrepreneur David Braben and Cambridge computer scientist Eben Upton came to see me with the prototype of a new computer. It was about the size of a USB stick, it was called Raspberry Pi, and its aim was to inspire a new generation of children to get interested in computer science.

The simple video I shot of the device on my phone eventually attracted more than 800,000 views on YouTube.

Fifteen months on, the project has taken off in a way its creators never imagined, and the ripples from the Raspberry Pi keep spreading out. When the Pi - slightly larger than the one I was shown last year - launched at the end of February, there was a huge response, and the charity behind it is still struggling to cope with the demand.

Two companies, RS and Farnell, have been contracted to distribute the mini-computers, and last week Electrocomponents, the RS parent company, reported that booming sales of the Raspberry Pi had boosted its first quarter revenues.

On Saturday I went along to a Raspberry Jam in Cambridge, the latest in a series of events where enthusiasts gather to discuss the project, swap experiences and hear about what may be coming next.

The audience at the sell-out event heard some breaking news from Eben Upton. Production had ramped up to 4,000 units a day to meet demand, but there was still a backlog of orders.

But what really excited the crowd was the announcement that a camera module for the device was coming very soon, priced at $20-$25 and offering 5MP photos and good quality video.

"It's been completely crazy," Eben Upton told me afterwards. "At Christmas last year we thought we might sell 10,000 of these devices, so to be sitting here with 200,000 out in the wild and plans to get to a million by the end of the year is just incredible."

But what is extraordinary about this project is the ecosystem (to use a fashionable word) which is being constructed around it. We heard from various organisations with plans to use the device - from the London Zoo which hopes to use the Raspberry Pi and its new camera in a project to crowd source the mapping of endangered animals - to various companies making components to offer greater functionality to the device. We saw a presentation by 18-year-old Liam Fraser whose YouTube channel offering Raspberry Pi tutorials has already had over a million views.

Raspberry Pi with SD memory card attached Raspberry Pi runs off an operating system on an attached SD memory card

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity but Liz Upton, who runs the forums, answers the emails, and generally does an amazing job of nurturing the Pi community, told us the organisation was very relaxed about companies making tons of money from picking up the idea and running with it.

The lecture theatre at the Cambridge Computing lab where the event took place was packed with teachers, some with deep knowledge of computer science, others just eager to work out how what difference the device could make in their schools.

And, amidst all the enthusiasm for this project amongst a largely middle-aged crowd, it is important to remember exactly who it is aimed at - school children.

The most telling presentation was by Dr Andrew Robinson from Manchester University's PiFace project, which is providing resources for schools. "Children are experts in time management," he told us. "You've got 10 seconds to get them to say 'wow'. Longer than that, and you may have lost them." Once you've got their interest, he explained, you can get them to do more.

That rings true. A generation is growing up used to technology which just works straight out of the box without demanding much expertise from the user. Expert and enthusiastic teachers will be needed to realise the vision behind Raspberry Pi.

But here's another idea. Do as I did and take a somewhat cynical teenager to a Raspberry Jam event. You might be surprised at their reaction, and might even hear them say "wow".

 
Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 37.

    @Aidy - if you've nothing constructive, waddle back under your bridge and keep on using your PB proxy.

    This could be a great component in the revamped Computing syllabus if enough teachers can get their hands on one.
    I started with a ZX81 and've been programming ever since. We've been stuck with the Windoze mentality due to our hashing of the home computer revolution, this is our chance again!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 36.

    Finally got my hands on mine, case constructed (courtesy of Pi Crust), SD installed and extended. For a Hobbyist like myself; first impressions are very good. Apart from the wait which was an age even after I received my authorisation code! now for the choice of its use? thinking networked media device! what's the use of having a beast of a main PC if I can only access it in one room.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 35.

    @34 - I think you're right, not enough is being made of this. If anything its one of their best 'unique selling points'. It hasn't passed the hobbyists by though, there are an increasing number of DIY upgrades and software libraries to assist with GPIO access in the works.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 34.

    I think it has great potential, but I'm a little irritated by the reviews. So far none have pointed out the GPIO capability and what it could be used for. Being able to directly program a micro-controller using a high level language could turn kids on to robotics and apps that don't operate in the world of 'personal computers' or 'social networks'. There's so much more to it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 33.

    32 Aidy

    Almost inevitably, a substantial proportion of early adopters will already be IT enthusiasts with existing projects in mind (selling to the converted, if you like). It'll be quite some time yet before we can filter out the noise and assess whether it's having a real influence on children's attitudes to computing. The inital signs are encouraging but you can't expect instant results.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 32.

    It seems to me that of 100 Pis being sold, 98 are being used as media servers, the other 2 being sold for a quick buck on eBay.

    Revitalising an interest in programming? Mmmm.....nah.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 31.

    A lot of people are ripping on the Raspberry Pi for the delays in delivery, but you are being far too harsh. The foundation is run by a couple of people and is completely non profit. I registered interest in march, and got mine in early June so the wait wasn't bad. Mine is being used as a competent media centre with Raspbmc and makes streaming movies to the living room as easy as...pi.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 30.

    26 peejkerton

    If they were an established company, selling, a product in a highly competitive market with a view to making a profit, then I'd agree but, as a not-for-profit organisation, with limited resources, whose aim is to improve computing skills over the long term, I don't think the fact that it's taken the supply side a few months to catch up with demand will really damage them.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 29.

    23.peejkerton

    I think this has a certain charm being run by enthusiastic amateurs, after all look where "talented professional businessmen" got Barclays,HSBC, RBS the list goes on...
    Good luck with this folks, I learned assembler on a CBM PET in the 80's. Let's hope this enthuses people as much as I was.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 28.

    What goes around, comes around...! Why doesn't somebody bring back a new version of the BBC Micro/C64/Spectrum so that..! Get kids back into programming and making their own games. I still have a BBC Micro and it is still a great machine.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 27.

    @Aidy 22

    I was talking about the whole process of bringing a product to mass-market, not your ability to program on a desktop PC.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 26.

    @Miss Ingoff
    One of the key attributes a business needs is a product to sell instead of a promise of one in seven months time, as a series of other companies rush to fulfill the gap.

    I could pick up a Pandaboard, Cotton Candy, Beagleboard, CuBox, a GumStix.

    The point is, I want to support the Raspberry Pi, but their inability to scale beyond hobbyists is damaging to them.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 25.

    23 peejkerton

    So you'll have to wait for September. If the good people at the Pi Foundation hadn't chosen to devote so much of their time, effort and skill to bringing the project to fruition, there wouldn't be a Pi at all. One of the key attributes a programmer needs is patience. Try some.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 24.

    Give them respect they are a charity, not some multi global institution with millions to waste on production. Have patience Jedi !

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 23.

    No matter the size of the company, or the scale of the project the one thing that the Raspberry Pi Foundation has really failed on, is getting stock to people. I registered my interest in February, and I'll be lucky to get the device by September.

    They need some actual business minds to run the business as one, not just idealist dreamers.

  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 22.

    @Chris 19

    > Could you have done better?

    Probably not.

    *turns on PC I already had*
    *starts up software I downloaded for free*
    *writes some code*

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 21.

    Nice to see kids still enjoying this kind of thing

    Sir Clive Sinclair and the BBC Basic community created some lifetime memories in the 1980s, and an industry where real talent is impossible to suppress

    enjoy

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 20.

    If your remember docking a Cobra MK III without a docking computer

    YOU WIN

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 19.

    Do those dismissing the Pi's release as 'a joke' realize how insulting their are? The Raspberry Pi foundation is not a multinational company with layers of management and ample funds. It is at most a small collection of individuals, and much of the time just Eben and Liz. With no previous experience of product -to-market, they have pulled off an amazing job! Could you have done better? Likely not.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 18.

    15 why-o-why

    Underestimating demand is arguably the lesser of two evils: if they'd overestimated demand and gone into full-scale production before the product was launched (assuming they could finance it), they'd have been in deep doo-doo if it had flopped. As it is, I reckon it could end up as this year's "must have" Christmas present.

 

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