10 years of Raspberry Pi

From making coding accessible to manufacturing chips...
05 May 2022

Interview with 

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi Ltd


Raspberry Pi


This year marks a rather special birthday for the Raspberry Pi mini computer, an essential tool used a lot of systems. Harry Lewis interviews Eben Upton, who helped create the technology, about it's legacy...

Eben - We've been around a decade. We launched on the 29th of February 2012, which of course creates birthday challenges for us. We've only really had two birthdays but we've been around for almost exactly 10 years now.

Harry - And do you remember those original months?

Eben - They were just a blur, right? They were a little bit like the first months of having a new child. Everything sort of smears together into this incredibly hectic blur, but things stand out like arriving at the punter on North Hampton Street in the evening of the first day.

Harry - That that a pub Eban?

Eben - Yeah. It's a pub in Cambridge. Realising that we'd sold a hundred thousand or taken orders for, we didn't have a hundred thousand units, we'd taken orders for a hundred thousand parts in the first 24 hours, so these kind of flashes, like the very first time I went to the factory in Wales where we've ended up building all of the Raspberry Pis. Now, you know, just these sort of just little vignettes, little moments.

Harry - Yeah. Little flash backs. That's an awful lot of orders to have placed within the first 24 hours, but it's an accessible tool, isn't it? How much does one of these things cost?

Eben - Well our cheapest units cost five bucks, right? So it really is the latte computer. You can have a Linux workstation for the price of a latte or a bit less than the price of a pint of beer these days. The most expensive thing we make is $75. That's the eight gigabyte, the largest memory version of Raspberry Pi 4, which is our most modern platform.

Harry - Going back to the fact that it's the latte of computer systems, is that gonna change? Because I feel like there's a lot of other industries that are relying on computing at the moment. And you guys are obviously all dealing with a chip shortage, that feels like it's been going on for a long time. What's the latest on that? And how does that apply to Raspberry Pi?

Eben - It's actually only really been going on for, in terms of its impact on our output, it's only been going on for about a year. It's strange to look back on March last year, that was our largest ever month for sales with over 800,000 units going out the door. I think it's making fools of us all. I'm mostly trying to predict when this is gonna end. It has to end. I suspect though, it's not gonna end, you know, it's not gonna end next month. That's for certain.

Harry - And what is the issue again?

Eben - It's interesting. The semiconductor industry is very cyclic industry. These things come around all the time. Maybe every five years you get some sort of shortage situation and in the middle, you then get a glut where the manufacturers are desperate to sell you product and they don't have enough demand to meet the supply rather than not having enough supply to meet demand. Talking to people at Raspberry Pi, our chief commercial officer, who's been doing this for the best part of 40 years. It's as bad as he's ever seen. And if you think, if you go back 40 years, that takes you back into sort to 1980, it's fairly likely it's the worst we've ever seen in the entire history of electronics. Because electronics itself only goes back another 30 years really before that. So this really is a once in a lifetime offer. And of course it's driven partly by demand, partly by supply. There was a miscalculation at the start of the pandemic, on a lot of people's part, including mine. Which was an assumption there would be a recession and that when there's a recession you don't want to get caught holding too much inventory. And so people dial down their orders. At the same time, people were stuck at home and they weren't able to go out to restaurants. They weren't able to go and consume services for many people, their income, even people who weren't able to work during the pandemic, their income was supported to some degree by furlough payments. And so the money that people couldn't spend on services, they tended to spend on goods. And many of those goods had semiconductors in. So you had an almost unnoticed, positive demand shock, and a negative supply shock. And the eventual unwinding of that is this kind of imbalance in the supply chain. Once an imbalance starts, as we found with toilet rolls two years ago, once an imbalance in the supply chain starts, it's very hard to persuade people not to engage in anti-social behaviour, hoarding, effectively hoarding behaviour. We're probably now no longer in the stage where this is driven by fundamentals. It's largely driven by panic.

Harry - Apart from waiting for it to end, are there any other solutions? Is there something that Raspberry Pi can do?

Eben - I think waiting for it to end is what we're all doing. Yeah. I mean, obviously, you know, on a component by component basis on Raspberry Pi, enormous amount of engineering and commercial effort goes into finding alternative sources for components. On any given day there will be a different component, which is causing the shortage, it's very seldom the same component twice that's causing the problem. So it's enormous amount of work goes in there. There are certainly reducable components though on the board for which we have no substitutes. Those are the components that regardless of how much engineering work we do there isn't that much we can do other than wait for it to end.

Harry - So making your own chips, is that what it could come down to?

Eben - Well, the interesting thing is that last year Raspberry Pi started making its own chips. We have a product called RP 2040, which is a micro controller. So I mentioned earlier big Raspberry Pi. When I say big Raspberry Pi, I mean a PC a thing that runs the next that gives you a desktop, gives you a web browser that gives you a C compiler programming tools. We have another sort of Raspberry Pi product called a Raspberry PICO, which is a lower end, lower power consumption embedded device with a micro controller inside. We make that micro controller. And so one of the bright spots of the last year is while it's been a difficult time to be a semiconductor customer, it's been probably the best year ever to become a semiconductor supplier. And we became a semiconductor supplier in January of last year. And we've seen enormous interest in that RP 2040 platform, as an alternative to a whole heap of micro control products out there from guys like ST micro electronics that you just can't buy this year.

Harry - Just amazing growth there from Evan and Raspberry Pi over the past 10 years.


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