Today is February the 29th and a leap day. So, depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either the Raspberry Pi’s fourth, or its first birthday.
We recently sat down and spoke with Eben Upton, the founder of Raspberry Pi, about the new Raspberry Pi 3, Model B, which was released today, what it means for the future of the Raspberry Pi platform, the Raspberry Pi’s competition, and the huge community that has grown up around the board over the last four years.
“It’s our fourth birthday, and we’ve sold 8 million units, and we’ve got a new Raspberry Pi for people” — Eben Upton, Founder, Raspberry Pi
(Find the board that is right for your project in the interactive Make: Board Guide)
The new Raspberry Pi 3 is the first board from the Foundation that ships with a 64-bit processor, and the first to have onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s available today, and costs $35, the same as the Raspberry Pi 2.
The future of Raspbian
The Foundation is still shipping a single unified Raspbian code base that runs on all of the existing Raspberry Pi platforms, and that means that they view the new 64-bit processor as “just a faster 32-bit core.” While there would be benefits to creating a 64-bit version of Raspbian right now, Upton sees the downside of breaking backwards compatibility. However that doesn’t mean that it’s going to go to waste.
“Although this is a 64-bit core, on day one, we’re only going to be running 32-bit code. We’re still running Raspbian, which is our ARMv6 operating system. There are some benefits from going 64-bit, primarily it brings a broader range of operating systems [onto the Raspberry Pi].” — Eben Upton
I think a lot of people forget the Foundation’s educational mission, and the importance it places on backwards compatibility with the 8 million Raspberry Pi’s already out there. When you’re dealing with computers in a classroom, not making all your teaching materials out of date overnight is vital.
“…we’re a not for profit, we exist to try and get kids programming.” — Eben Upton
While that doesn’t mean those of us outside the classroom can’t make use of the new 64-bit capabilities of the Raspberry Pi 3, it does means we shouldn’t expect the Foundation to provide it. There are already Android ports to the Raspberry Pi; I’m rather hopeful that we’ll see a fully featured port of an up-to-date Android distribution. Personally it sounds like a perfect Google Summer of Code project. Anyone..?
A viable desktop replacement
The new Raspberry Pi is 50% faster than the old Raspberry Pi 2, or about ten times the speed of the original Raspberry Pi board.
“This 50–60% has moved us over some sort of line, where it becomes a much more credible PC replacement.” — Eben Upton
From my own observations the additional speed seems to have pushed the new Raspberry Pi past a threshold, using it as a desktop computer seems to be possible. At least for most users, most of the time. The addition of Bluetooth opens up the ability to use Bluetooth keyboards and mice, which are now far more common, with the new Raspberry Pi.
The question of Ethernet
One of the major complaints about the way Ethernet has been implemented on the Raspberry Pi is that Ethernet traffic is run over the USB bus using the LAN9154. This hasn’t changed on the new board, but Upton has been quoted on record several times that he doesn’t see this as a problem.
“Well, you have a 100Mbit interface downstream of a 480Mbit interface, so I’ve never been sure why some people are concerned by this choice.” — Eben Upton
So if you’re hoping for Gigabit Ethernet, you’ll instead have to settled for 802.11n wireless. Given the way computing is evolving — if you own any recent Apple MacBook you’re probably used to life without an Ethernet port — you might have to get used to it. I don’t think you’ll see a Raspberry Pi with Gigabit Ethernet any time soon.
A Pi for the Internet of Things
The Raspberry Pi is increasingly seen as a hub for building the Internet of Things.
“We’re expecting to see a lot more people using the Raspberry Pi as an IoT hub. It’s sat there, either connected to your network via wired Ethernet or via Wi-Fi and then it has a cloud of [generally] BLE sensors around it.” — Eben Upton
At least for most people, wires carrying power are a lot more available than wires carrying network, so the addition of both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — especially support for Bluetooth LE — makes the platform far more credible for Internet of Things purposes.
“One of the real surprises for me — as a software engineer — is the extent of which the exciting things to do with [the Raspberry Pi] are physical computing (hacking) projects. We have this suspicion that kids are going to do existing IoT-type projects, we have a suspicion that the connectivity stuff adds more value than you’d expect.” — Eben Upton
It seems likely, given the chipset, that the Raspberry Pi should be able to operate in both Access Point mode and client mode simultaneously. In other words, it can get its internet connection by joining on a wireless network, while simultaneously providing a second network as an access point to a ‘cloud’ of sensors. Both firewalling the sensor network away from the network that has laptops and games consoles, and humans, and extending the reach of the original network to inaccessible places.
End of life?
With the introduction of the new Raspberry Pi 3 people may be worrying about availability of other boards in the Raspberry Pi line up. Especially the original Raspberry Pi, Model B.
“We don’t end of life. As long as people want to buy Raspberry Pi Model B’s, we’ll keep making Raspberry Pi Model B’s… but I’m not honestly sure how long people will want the [Model] B for?” — Eben Upton
However, while they might not end of life products, the Foundation can encourage people to stop using them.
“The Pi 2, Model B, will stay in production but there won’t be any price change for the Pi 2, so I suspect people will move pretty quickly to the Pi 3.” — Eben Upton
In the longer term then, given that the Model B+ is now being sold for $25, it seems likely that the Raspberry Pi, Model B+, will outlive the newer Raspberry Pi 2 as people move from it to the Raspberry Pi 3.
Supply problems for the Raspberry Pi 3
Most of the capacity of the Welsh plant producing the Raspberry Pi boards has been dedicated to the production ramp for the Raspberry Pi 3. This has been the case over the last few weeks, and will probably continue for the next couple of months.
While Upton isn’t expecting the supply problems with the Raspberry Pi 3 to be as bad as people are currently seeing with the Raspberry Pi Zero, there will be a short-term bump in supply, as the pipeline is “much stronger.”
“The plant can mill about 100,000 a week. We think we can get on top of demand.” — Eben Upton
However for those of you still waiting to get your hands on a Raspberry Pi Zero, you should be prepared to wait a bit longer. Despite being able to fit Pi Zero product “around the edges” of other production, there isn’t much capacity being dedicated to the $5 computer this month, or next.
The future holds new boards
The Foundation doesn’t talk about announced products but we do know that along with today’s launch there will be two new boards launched some time soon.
“There will be a Raspberry Pi 3, Model A, and a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3” — Eben Upton
The Raspberry Pi, Model A+ currently sells for $20. I don’t really see that price point changing with the arrival of the new Raspberry Pi 3, Model A, although the new board might well cost $25. Either way, a Model A, which is traditionally cheaper than the B series as it has no Ethernet, is a board that is going to gather a lot of interest by thing makers building the emerging Internet of Things — even more than the Model B launched today.
We’re also going to see new camera modules this year, possibly even in the next month or two. While there has been no official announcements, the OV5647 sensor that the current camera modules are based around has been discontinued. It is known the Foundation bought up as much stock of the current sensor as they could to keep production going, but that supply has to run out sooner or later.
Beyond that? Well, despite their commitments, sometimes you can get interesting hints about the road ahead.
“I’d like to see USB 3.0 added, as it really is the universal solution for adding peripherals — especially higher bandwidth ones like disk drives, network interfaces — and removes the requirements for things like SATA” — James Adams, Director of Hardware Engineering, Raspberry Pi
But while I think any hypothetical Raspberry Pi 4 may well have USB 3.0 at this point, I also think the new Raspberry Pi 3 will almost certainly have a longer life than the Raspberry Pi 2. Perhaps two, or maybe even three, years rather than the one that the Raspberry Pi 2 survived. So don’t hold your breath waiting.