'We were a community before the Pi': CEO Eben Upton on five years of Raspberry Pi

Eben Upton, founder and CEO of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is trying to illustrate how huge the Raspberry Pi phenomenon has become:  “In 2011 I had a spreadsheet that told me where every single Raspberry Pi prototype was (there were 50). Fast forward to 2017, we’ve sold nearly 15 million units and we’ve a guy in Japan using one to sort cucumbers!” 

He is referring to his favorite project in which a Japanese man has used a Raspberry Pi to categorize cucumbers on his parent’s farm. 

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the original Raspberry Pi launch, and the cucumber anecdote provides an interesting indication of how far the Foundation and its product (a credit card sized microcomputer designed to inspire the next generation of coders) has come. 

What started as a recruitment drive for the Computer Science department at Cambridge University rapidly became a movement that has helped the world fall in love with the subject. 

The Raspberry Pi Foundation was born out of a problem. In the mid 2000s Eben was the Director of Studies in Computer Science at St John’s College Cambridge and, in his own words, “the number of people applying to study here had collapsed”. 

"We need to make the Raspberry Pi a little bit simpler to use."

Eben Upton

In the 1980s Cambridge’s course attracted 600 applicants annually but by the early 2000s that number was down to 200 and that drop convinced many that the dwindling interest must be addressed. The Foundation also had concerns about the profession’s male dominated nature (“our industry has a diversity problem”) and recognised inspiring kids with a fun product for all might go some way in rectifying the gender divide. 

These concerns resulted in the 2009 formation of the Raspberry Pi Foundation whose aim was “to develop and market a $25 microcomputer for education” and in 2012 that microcomputer, the Raspberry Pi 1 Model B, went on sale (‘Raspberry’ to follow in tradition of fruit named computers, and ‘Pi’ because it promotes the programming language Python). 

500,000 units a month

Before launch the Foundation “had a very parochial view of what success might be, we were just interested in getting a few more applications to Cambridge”. But when the 29th February 2012 arrived (launch day) and online retailers repeatedly crashed under the weight of orders it became clear the Foundation was onto something. The figures are stunning. A million units sold in the first year, in a good month the factory (Sony's Pencoed facility in South Wales) churns out 500,000 of the hero product (the Pi 3) and there’s a good chance they’ll shift six million units in 2017 alone.

So why the success? Eben puts it down to giving kids control: “when you’re a young person you don’t have an enormous amount of power”. But give a child Lego, Minecraft or a one of the six Raspberry Pi models on sale (the most expensive of which is only £32.98/AUD $67.95/USD $35) and the creative possibilities prove irresistible.

The community of dedicated hobbyists and enthusiasts has also been crucial to its success, and Eben points out that “we’ve been a community a lot longer than we’ve been a product company”. In 2011 development of the first Raspberry Pi was broadcast across the company's website and social media channels, and a following quickly grew. 

Astro Pi

Since then the community has been wowing the internet with their commitment to producing projects that include everything from an artificial pancreas to a missile system that shoots foam darts at underperforming colleagues. Two Raspberry Pi (called Astro Pi) even spent some time on the International Space Station with Major Tim Peake in 2016. 

If the community, the Foundation’s lifeblood, is a success it is because it’s carefully moderated and curated online. It is “a community where there are no stupid questions”. As a result there is a culture of learning that encourages inclusion, and this has helped the community boom.

"So far, 40% of kids involved are girls."

Eben Upton

Perhaps most pleasingly for the Foundation (and the other institutions involved in the computer science revival in Cambridge’s ‘Silicon Fen’) applications to study the subject have recovered significantly, and today the university receives around 800 applications each year to learn at the faculty. 

Accolades have joined the stella sales, and in June 2017 the Foundation was awarded Britain’s top engineering prize, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, and the Raspberry Pi overtook the Commodore 64 in sales to become Britain's best selling computer. The Amstrad Emailer, this is not. 

Making it simpler

So what of the future? In the long term the Foundation will focus on more hardware, but the Pi 3 (launched in 2016) is likely to be a three year product and so the company is currently focusing on the software side of things, with Eben stating that “to achieve the mission for everyone we need to make it (the Raspberry Pi) a little bit simpler to use”. 

Things should be made easier by the charitable work of the Foundation itself. This has numerous organisations focused on getting Raspberry Pi into the hands of the next generation, and teaching them how to use it. 

Among the Foundation’s successes has been a free magazine for teachers called ‘HelloWorld’ and the ‘Picademy’, which teaches educators to make the best of Raspberry Pi in class. 

Perhaps the most successful bit of business has been to increase the reach of the Raspberry Pi by merging the Foundation with Code Club and CoderDojo, two of the “premier international club brands” that introduce children to coding.

Code Club has recently extended its age category to 13 so that secondary schools can take part, and so far 40% of kids involved are girls. In the long term the Foundation is keen to bring its products, and eventually full charitable programs, to the developing world.

It has been a busy five years for the Foundation, the Raspberry Pi and Eben. When I ask what he’d like the microcomputer’s legacy to be, he says that in 30 years if just “one person will look back on Raspberry Pi with the same fondness that I look back on my BBC Micro” he will be a happy man. Given his sales figures I wouldn’t say he has much to worry about. Happy Birthday Raspberry Pi.

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