Seven years ago, the number of applications to study computing science at the University of Cambridge had dwindled to just a few hundred. Eben Upton, then the director of studies there, was dismayed. In an attempt to solve the problem, he created a budget single-board computer to encourage study and play, and accidentally built a British computing empire.
The first Raspberry Pi was launched in 2012, and since then nearly 27 million devices have been sold, the government has handed the Raspberry Pi Foundation and its partners £78 million to spend on inspiring kids to code, and the Pi has evolved so dramatically that the newest edition, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, is no longer a cheap and cheerful computing board but an actual, honest-to-goodness PC — with a starting price of £34.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as a PC company, and with every product iteration it’s become more like a PC,” says Upton. “This is the one that really takes us past what’s required for the majority of PCs.”
That achievement hasn’t come via a leap forward in computing technology, but a levelling out in what users want. “All we’ve done is what everyone does, which is to just climb the technology curve — but what’s happened is the watermark hasn’t moved up, so PC performance has largely flatlined,” Upton says. “And consumer requirements for PC performance have largely flatlined.”
The Raspberry Pi 4 is an entirely new platform, as it steps away from the older, less powerful processors used in all the previous versions. It offers up to 4GB of RAM, USB 3 and dual HDMI that supports 4K video. Upton particularly hopes to take advantage of the more powerful graphics and 3D capabilities. “I’d like to see a games industry on Raspberry Pi,” he says. “I don’t really understand why there isn’t one.”
The last Pi was comparable to a PlayStation 2 or first-gen Xbox in terms of graphics specifications, he notes, though one sticking point could be the platform’s lack of DRM. “Usually if you sell that many of something, somebody starts to ask themselves whether there’s a commercial software business to be had there,” Upton says, though he stresses Raspberry Pi isn’t planning on becoming a games developer itself, but hopes someone else takes up that work.
And there is plenty of commercial business off the back of Pi. Most Raspberry Pi devices aren’t sold to consumers or schools to help push Upton’s educational goals. Instead, about half of the production is for commercial and industrial markets, automating factories, managing production lines, managing Internet of Things sensors and more. Upton admits he’s surprised by the industrial success of the Pi, but says a shared need for rugged design and safety connects the two. “Nobody designed this product thinking it was going to make its way into industrial environments, but it turns out kids are a demanding market,” he says.
Because of its popularity in industry, the older models — 2, 3, and 3+ — will remain available, and Raspberry Pi is promising support until at least 2026 for the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B. “People in those markets have a very different expectation from consumers in terms of longevity and reliability,” he says. “If I’m going to automate my factory and I’m using [Raspberry Pi], I don’t want to be running around in scrap yards on eBay looking for spare Raspberry Pis.” That’s why the company continues to sell thousands of its Pi 3s each month despite the arrival of the 3+, he says.
Upton warns to expect some “turbulence” with the new platform, which not only is a leap forward in hardware capabilities, but also uses a preview version of the Debian Linux operating system. Alongside solving any bugs, the team will also be busy at work exploiting the newly available features. “All of the previous Raspberry Pis… it took us seven years to be finished sweating all of the clever little bits of value out of what we had,” Upton says. “It will probably be a year, at least, before we’ve even made a dent.”
Industry is a nice side earner, but what of that original goal to spur hundreds more computing science applications to Cambridge? Upton says that the latest round saw 1,100 would-be students apply at the university. “Yeah, that went well,” he says. Mission accomplished, it’d be fair to coast now, basking in the success Raspberry Pi has achieved.
Instead, Upton has a larger goal: spread Raspberry Pi’s reach globally. “We think it has a lot of applicability in the developed world, in consumer, industrial and hobbyist markets — that’s building on the success we already had,” Upton says. “But we do believe this is an interesting device for developing world applications, as well.” For example, the more robust performance and extra ports mean a single machine can power two workstations, handy for schools and internet cafes on a budget.
With his first mission accomplished, he’s aiming wider and higher than Cambridge for his next target: “What does success look like in seven more years? It looks like everybody, everywhere having the chance to experience general purpose computing and [having] the chance to learn to program if they want.”
Given that, Upton is looking for help expanding the Raspberry Pi further into the developing world, but so far it hasn’t been easy. In the UK, several local retailers popped up around Cambridge to sell Raspberry Pis and accessories. But will the same thing work at a much greater distance, with culture, language and more in the way? To help, Raspberry Pi, both the foundation and the commercial company, are planning to recruit new staff to help find partners and grow sales, particularly across Africa.
Upton believes there’s more to computing than internet access and basic tasks like topping up a bank account. People are being denied the chance to learn to program or create, rather than consume, content. “We all want a world in which nobody is denied access to general-purpose computing, and the opportunities that come with it, on the grounds of cost.”
Giving the world the power of computing is a far cry from inspiring a few hundred more students to apply to one prestigious university, but of course Upton has already achieved far more than his first modest goal. “We believe that all over the world there are people who have been denied agency, personal fulfilment, by the way [computing] platforms have ended up,” he says. “We want to try and remedy that.”