As part of our celebration of Raspberry Pi’s second birthday, I interviewed Eben Upton, founder and former trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
—Stett Holbrook, MAKE senior editor
Two years in, what kind of changes have you seen in Raspberry Pi’s educational efforts, and how do you measure success?
That’s a really interesting question. If you had asked me two years ago how I measure success, I would have said the number of units shipped. I might have said commercial success of the product, and long term, the number of kids going into college studying computing. And I guess from that standpoint, we’ve got a good marker of success. But one thing that’s really interesting is there is a second marker of success that we thought was going to take us a very long time to get any real handle on it, and that’s how quickly Raspberry Pi has been sucked into the educational system — not to the extent of every classroom on every desk, but certainly some of the more progressive schools and a very large number of after-school clubs that are very popular in the U.K. and the U.S. now. They’ve really started to use it.
Why is that? Is it the price or the ease of use?
I think there was latent demand. What we hadn’t really realized when we went into this was, we thought we were going to have to create demand for this, among kids in particular. I think that was a miscalculation. There was an enormous latest demand for something a bit like this among the hobbyist community. I think we started to see this before we launched. We started to come to Maker Faires. We did the New York one in 2011, and what was really interesting was how many kids there were, young kids, doing Arduino stuff. And that probably should have been a bit of a hint to us that among kids who were lucky to have some kind of support, there was already something going on, and it was probable that was the thing that we tapped into. The surprise for us was we weren’t rebooting this thing from a standing start, but were rebooting it from a point where there were actually a large number of people finding ways of doing stuff, and the maker community was a big part of that.
What’s on the horizon this year for new software?
There are continuing, ongoing, low-grade improvements in performance. You know: a percent there, five percent here, a percent there. Just this continual drip, drip, drip, in overall performance improvement across the platform. What’s been interesting to us is if you are prepared to do some attention to detail how much you can get out. I had expected to exhaust those improvements within a few months, but we are still seeing improvements. That’s ongoing. That’s going to keep happening. We’ve also got a few flagship pieces of software that we are working on optimizing. We have a web browser. It’s a port of the Epiphany web browser that we’ve been investing in on the Pi. It continues to get better, in particular the HTML5 video support. If there’s one thing that’s gone slower than I’d hoped, it’s moving the desktop across from being X-based to being Wayland-based. We are still doing that. It’s a major focus of our efforts. The other one is Scratch. We still have this ambition to be better than we are at Scratch. But all the stuff you might do in a primary school works pretty well on the Pi.
As far as hardware goes, what’s happening there?
We’ve got an announcement this week that that the long-rumored display board,the LCD display panel for the Pi, is getting fairly close to being ready. We’ve got some nice LCD demos running with a wide VGA, industrial grade, with a 10-point projected capacitive touch on the front. We have prototypes that we are happy with and that we have worked out all the kinks.
When will they be in production?
We’re hoping to have them in production this summer. It is something that is potentially going to be quite cost effective. We’re hoping to have something in the sub-$70 range for a really nice reasonable resolution panel with touch.
Other stuff, well, there is no Pi 2. [laughs] I think we are still holding to our promise that we are going to try to keep Pi 1 in the market for several years before we do a Pi 2. We’ve sold two-and-a-half-million Pis. If we jumped to a Pi 2 then we orphan two-and-a-half million people. I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is we’ve had this commitment to not be a magpie and run off after some shiny new thing after six months. We’re going to stick with that and we’re still reliant on the community. One of the interesting things is how the community continues to develop these accessories. I keep thinking
I’ve see all the possible accessories for the Pi and them someone will come out with something new and then there’s another Kickstarter for something no one has ever thought of.
What trends do you see in how the Pi is being used beyond education?
We’re seeing lots of industrial designing. As the platform has become more stable and more performance [oriented] we’re seeing more people going, “Hang on a second, why am I using a random portable computer that costs me a hundred bucks when I could be using the Pi?” So we’re seeing quite a lot of that. A certain amount of our software is going to be about supporting those people.
We started off pretty firmly in the hobbyist community, the adult hobbyist community. But from there it’s branched off in three directions. It’s branched off into industrial. It’s branched off into education, which of course was the original goal. The nice thing is having the hobbyist, maker base who are familiar with the device. The presence of those people is a big asset for kids. It improves the chances there’s an adult nearby who they go to and ask questions of. And then we’ve seen this branching out of it as a consumer product because we run Xbox Media Center very well. We have people using Pi as an honest to God consumer product. We reckon we have approximately north of half a million users using them as IPTV set top boxes. We now have the largest non-PC platform for running XBMC. Obviously Windows PCs are still the biggest, but we are the largest platform after that, which is really surprising to us. But that was always one of the goals of the Pi, that it was supposed to be a bit of fun.
Any projects that are favorites of yours?
One of the things I blogged about a couple of weeks ago was the success of the Pi in Africa. One of the really nice things is to see that the Pi is popular in the developing world, and it’s not a charitable thing. When we are engaging with Africa we are engaging with them as a business opportunity, not as a charity case. It turns out when you provide cheap computing capability, people will find a way to make a business out of it. In the last six months that’s really surprised me. It’s remarkable, particularly in some of the capital cities, how familiar that tech scene is. All our engagement has been through makerspaces and hackerspaces, and when you walk in the door you could be anywhere. You could be in the Bay Area. You could be in London or you could be in Cambridge. The places look exactly the same.
What do you see on the horizon over the next two years? Ten years?
Well obviously in the next 10 years we’ll have to ship the Raspberry Pi 2. [laughs] But there is a certain amount of stuff that is evolutionary. But the industrial stuff is really important to me. This kind of crowdfunding-plus-Pi seems like it’s got a lot of potential. You’ve got the potential to democratize three things that have historically not been very democratic. That’s access to technology at a competitive price. I think that’s got massive potential to unlock business, and unlock creativity, and unlock access to opportunity for people. And then platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo democratize access to capital, and historically capital has been hard to get ahold of if you are the little guy. Platforms like Raspberry Pi democratize access to technology where historically you would have had to have bought a million chips in order to get a compelling price. Of course it’s a slightly older trend, but you have the internet which provides you with democratized access to information. So you’ve got these three, information, technology, and capital together and I think the Pi fits into this really exciting trend.
Where did the name come from?
Raspberry comes from fruit-named computer companies. There are one or two. In the U.K. we had Apricot. We had Tangerine. We had even Acorn, which is technically a fruit. So there have been a number of fruit-named computer companies. Raspberry was one of the few remaining fruits that wasn’t taken, and it’s also the rudest fruit because it’s like blowing a raspberry. And Pi is Python. When we first thought about making Raspberry Pi we thought about making machines that could just run Python. It wasn’t going to run on Linux. But we shortened it to be “Pi” because we thought it would make a great logo. I hated the name for the first year, but it grew on me and I’ve grown to love Raspberry Pi as a name.