You may well not have heard of a genius called Eben Upton. He operates out of Cambridge University and has created a new computing system which he has named Raspberry Pi. This small and simple computer has already sold over 15 billion units and its success is set to continue.
The inspiration behind Raspberry Pi
He hadn’t banked on the pent-up demand of hobbyists eager for a cheap, programmable device that they could use as a nerve centre for everything from homespun robots to automated pet feeders. Mr Upton’s favourite uses of the devices, priced from $5 to $35, include automating cucumber sorting on a Japanese farm, recording students’ ballooning expeditions and a competition in which Tim Peake, the astronaut, helped to run schoolchildren’s computer code on Raspberry Pis on the International Space Station.
The company estimates that its products are used by 85,000 children every week and last month it was awarded one of Britain’s highest engineering prizes, the MacRobert Award, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The judges praised the technical challenges overcome in producing a computer that “costs less than a textbook, without sacrificing size, functionality or reliability”.
Half of the products now end up in industrial applications, such as low-cost factory automation and powering digital signage, but the organisation began life with the realisation that the rise of the games console meant that a whole generation had grown up without access to mass market programmable devices.
The success so far
Mr Upton had the idea while working as director of studies in computer science at Cambridge. “We were thinking we were screwed. Cambridge is the best place to study computer science in the world, we invented it all, but we went from 600 applicants in 1999-2000 to barely 200 in 2008. We recruit 100 every year, so we were getting into white-knuckle territory. We were admitting everyone who was good enough. We thought maybe next year we’d have to shrink the course, or lower our standards, which would be even worse.
“I thought, ‘Where did the people come from in 1999?’ I look back at my childhood, when I had a BBC Micro and my friend had a ZX Spectrum, two good Cambridge-designed, British manufactured computers. They were replaced by games consoles. No one ever bought a Nintendo and was tricked into becoming a computer programmer because they are not [user] programmable devices.”
Raspberry Pi began as a charity, but changed tack: “We were coming up to launch and demand was way beyond what we could build. We couldn’t raise the capital as a not-for-profit.”
It now has the structure of a trading company, led by Mr Upton, which is owned by a charitable trust. It solved its capital constraints by following the lead of Arm, the Cambridge chip designer, by becoming a licensing business. Most Raspberry Pi devices are made to its specification by Sony in Wales, and are distributed by Premier Farnell.
Education in computer engineering
The charitable side has attracted support from corporations including Google, Arm and Shell. There’s a broad base of supporters because the mission is not simply to create the next generation of computer programmers. “Our donors are people who see computing as a way of addressing the wider challenge we have with engineering education.
“We have an image problem, where parents don’t aspire for their kids to be engineers. We want more people to be engineers because it’s a fantastic job. You get paid good money to mess about and solve problems. Who wouldn’t want that for their kids?
“To my mind, coding is a way of giving people an experience of engineering, so maybe they will go on to be civil engineers.”
Although the computer system is still yet to reach the homes of many consumers, businesses are already relying on its quick, effective operating system. The potential that this new technology has to offer is exciting – we can’t wait to see what comes next.