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Raspberry Pi – the world’s most grown up one-year-old

Eben Upton

The Raspberry Pi micro-computer has proved a sensation in its first year of operation. While redolent of the BBC computer developed by Hermann Hauser, Chris Curry and Cambridge’s ‘micro men’ it is inspiring future generations of bright young engineers.

The company is heading for a million sales worldwide in its very first year and is set to go into production with a new, lower-specced generation two product. Most of the manufacturing has now been switched back from China to the UK.

Besides the clear commercial success of Raspberry Pi, 2012 has brought other accolades. This summer Upton, who is Broadcom Corporation’s Cambridge-based technical director, Mobile and Wireless Group, was recognised by MIT’s Technology Review as a TR35 Honoree for 2012 for his invention.

The TR35 honours the world’s top innovators under the age of 35, spanning biotechnology, computer and electronics hardware and software, energy, the Web, and nanotechnology, among other emerging fields.

Concerned about the decline in the number of and skill level of students in computer science, Upton set out to develop a mini-computer at a radical price point so schools could hand them out just like textbooks.

Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized motherboard with a Broadcom system on a chip (SoC) enabling unsurpassed connectivity and integration, and designed to plug into a TV or be combined with a touch screen to create a tablet. Raspberry Pi is dramatically changing how children learn about computers.

Upton said he was inspired as a child by the BBC Micro and Acorn. “Many of us today wouldn’t be computer programmers without the influence of Acorn,” he told Ellee Seymour in the first of a series of online ‘Talking Heads’ interviews for Business Weekly. Upton added: “There is a more direct influence on our product because Raspberry Pi contains an ARM chip and ARM spun out of Acorn. We absolutely hope that, just as I’m sitting here saying there would be no Raspberry Pi but for the BBC Micro, in 20 years time people looking back will say they got into computer programming because of the influence of our device.

“We hope it will help to generate a new generation of engineers. So far the feedback has been very positive.”

Raspberry Pi was initially devised as an education aid and trials in schools created a real buzz. Upton said: “We want to get children interested in computers much earlier. We wanted to create a platform that was cheap and portable so children could not just use them in class but also take them home and spend time on them there. So at the age of 18 they would have spent 10 years programming for several hours a day.”

Upton confided that the level of interest in and demand for the cheap-as-chips device took everyone by surprise. “We thought we might make 1,000 units and get into the local press. We couldn’t have imagined the level of international media interest or the demand to ship product.”

While the business was primarily focusing on the UK market, Upton said there continued to be huge interest globally, especially in the BRIC countries – particularly in Brazil and Russia. Not so much China and India at present, but he was sure these markets would also open up to a slice of Raspberry Pi over time.

Looking at the pantheon of Cambridge technology greats like Sinclair and Acorn, Upton said Raspberry Pi still had “a mountain to climb” in terms of matching the kind of shipments achieved by the exemplars. But what a start they’ve made!