The Complete Magazine on Open Source

‘Raspberry Pi enables embedded engineering while being a cheap, low-power Linux platform’

, / 3522 0

Eben Upton August 2016

Raspberry Pi  has transformed the world of computing. This single-board computer has opened new avenues for millions of budding developers all across the globe. But what was the prime idea behind the tiny little device and how did it receive such worldwide acclaim? Jagmeet Singh of OSFY tried to get the answers to these questions in an exclusive conversation with Raspberry Pi  creator, Eben Upton. Read on for the edited excerpts.

Q How did you get the idea to design Raspberry Pi?
When I was a child, I had two different small computers — BBC Micro and Amiga. At the time that I went to university and started computing, both the computers were quite common for people of my age in the UK. So to engage a hobbyist’s interest and to step into the computer industry, I planned to develop Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi filled the space that was left empty by  machines like BBC Micro and Amiga. It was really an attempt to provide kids with the same experience that we used to have back in the 1980s.

Q What is the real mission behind Raspberry Pi? Is it just to give the world an affordable computing experience or also to open new avenues for Internet of Things (IoT) developments?
The mission is quite simple and it is to give young people access to a computer science education experience. We didn’t design Raspberry Pi for the industrial control space, but it turns out to be very well designed for industrial control and the IoT world.

We just want to create a new generation of people who are excited about computing and computer programming. Mainly, we are targeting people who are not just the end users of computers but are also potential creators. They are the users who understand computing at a very deep level.

Q Raspberry Pi is already helping students learn new code. How can it be an impactful device in the education sector?
Obviously, several factors make Raspberry Pi an impactful device in the education sector. One is affordability, as this is incredibly important everywhere. There is a misconception about computing, which is that everybody has a computer. But most of the users all across the globe were using one family computer in the past, due to its high price. In addition, a significant percentage of people had devices with some closed platforms. Thus, they were scared to break the devices and even avoided customising them using their own code and tweaks.

We were determined generate a solution that would be cheap enough, and Raspberry Pi emerged as the result. One of the major things that persuade you to buy a Raspberry Pi is that if you break the board, you can certainly afford a new one.

The other thing that makes Raspberry Pi a perfect solution for students is the feasible computing experience. We have provided the universally accepted 40-pin GPIO header that helps children try some of their advanced sensors and transform some simple projects into intuitive ones. Kids use Raspberry Pi to write new software and control things in the real world.

Q What are your plans to expand the presence of Raspberry Pi in the Indian market?
We are keen to get the cost down and availability up for Raspberry Pi in India, and want to reduce the delay in introducing new products in the Indian market. We are also looking at some initiatives with the state governments in the country.

On the embedded systems side, we are trying to improve the cost. There are plans to work with various government bodies in the country to fulfil the needs of the educational sector. We want to see Raspberry Pi in the hands of a large number of children in India who are eager to learn computing. We also want to make sure that there is appropriate education and support material in the Indian market to help those children.

Q The Indian government has recently launched some  initiatives like ‘Digital India’ and ‘Skill India’. Do you think it would be worth it for the Raspberry Pi Foundation to participate in both these programmes?
Because we are a very small organisation, and it takes some major effort to join some flagship local government programme, we are unlikely to get involved directly.

However, we always aim to provide enough resources to students in India. We are already supporting children through our partnership with the Kerala government. Rather than participating entirely in a government-led programme, we are providing resources in the form of hardware and software documentation to help young developers. That is a good model as India is a massive place.

Q Universities such as Cambridge and Harvard are providing Raspberry Pi to their students. Are you in talks with some Indian institutes to give the same power of open source computing to local budding developers in India?
We have the initiative in Kerala to provide computing through Raspberry Pi to the local school students. The good thing about Raspberry Pi is that it works as a standard platform and uses a Linux-based operating system to help a large number of budding developers. Generally, even in the University of Cambridge or at Harvard, we don’t interact directly with the alumni.

We actually made the decision to build the hardware cheap. Our strategy to support young developers is through a simple, cheap and standardised platform. The universities and institutions can deploy the hardware themselves and enhance the knowledge of their students in an effective and efficient manner.

Q Where does India rank globally on the list of potential markets for Raspberry Pi and the Raspberry Pi Foundation?
We have two distributors supplying Raspberry Pi units in India, and both supply roughly 2 to 3 per cent of our global shipments, to the Indian market. Also, India is the biggest APAC country after China in terms of the sales of Raspberry Pi.

Globally, India stands at No. 6 and sits behind some developed markets like the US, UK, Germany and China. We certainly want to do better to improve the existing presence of Raspberry Pi in the Indian market. India is kind of a dream market for the Raspberry Pi Foundation and it should become a US-sized market in the near future.

Q Where do you see Raspberry Pi in the future, in relation to the IoT and open source?
Raspberry Pi is a good platform for prototyping IoT applications. But what is more interesting for me is when the people continue to stay on Raspberry Pi even after building a prototype, using the same platform to even finish their final product.

We are now allowing customers to buy customised Raspberry Pi units. This enables a large number of our customers to tweak the prime features of Raspberry Pi and even change the shape of the device to match their requirements.

Regarding open source, we are already an open source software platform.  The millions of man hours and engineering that was involved in the development of Linux indeed helped us design Raspberry Pi. Thus, we try to give back to the open source community.

We are providing the community with the platform that lets a large number of developers build new open source software. Also, we are spending heavily in improving the kernels and software that are already available to the open source world.

Q What is the prime reason a developer would prefer a Raspberry Pi?
Just one thing; it is the size of the community. We have sold over nine million units of Raspberry Pi so far.

We have a large and friendly community that enables easy resolving of issues on your Raspberry Pi. We provide official forums on our website that are consistently moderated by our team to offer the best solutions to the users.

One of the interesting things about the Raspberry Pi is that it enables embedded engineering while being a cheap, low-power Linux platform. It builds enterprise skill sets and allows people to apply their embedded skills. By bringing out a more enterprise-oriented feature set into the embedded space, we are going to change the engineering of this newly emerged space.

Q So apart from just the hardware, the Raspberry Pi Foundation maintains a strong community. What are your thoughts on the need for a community to develop a unique computing experience?
A community is not just needed to develop a unique computing experience but also to create a unique culture involving a great mixture of people. A lot of organisations have gained success through strong community support.

Some people wanted to get involved in embedded computing but could not due to the lack of resources and skills. In our case, the community power helped such people and let them start developing new products by interacting with others on the same platform.

Modern computing systems are complicated, and the computing experience is hard. When I was a
kid, we worked with just 32K of RAM to learn everything about computers. However, you now need to stand on the shoulders of other people and need experts to learn new things about the computing world. The need for a strong community does arise. So it is wonderful to have dedicated community support.

Q When can we expect an official Android version for Raspberry Pi users?
We are not going to do this for ourselves. Android is certainly one of the most requested features. But at the same time, Android is a platform for consumption, not for production. It is a platform that makes developers bother about some consumable things. On the other hand, we are very focused on production and on teaching people to produce.

I am very hopeful that Google will at some point add Android support for Raspberry Pi. If you look at the activity on the AOSP repository, some directories have been created to suggest the new development. So I hope something will happen soon. Moreover, it would be a wonderful community allied on Android development.

Q How is Raspbian a preferable choice for Raspberry Pi as opposed to Android and other open source platforms?
Raspbian is where we spent a lot of money and brought out all the tools that people would require on an open source platform for Raspberry Pi. The beauty about Raspbian is how active the community is (particularly the Ubuntu community) in pulling all the new features.

Q Can a Windows-powered Raspberry Pi be stronger than its Raspbian counterpart?
I would love to see full Windows on Raspberry Pi. That would be the game changer if a full Windows experience, including the Edge browser and the Office applications along with Shell, debuts some time in the future. Although I do not have any verifiable information about when this could happen, the full Windows on Raspberry Pi would expand both the hardware and software worlds.

Presently, Windows 10 on Raspberry Pi is available as a platform to build IoT devices. It is certainly a very good choice. People are making new things using the Windows 10 platform, and we are looking to deploy and upscale these using our customisation programme.

Q The latest version of Raspberry Pi features built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Why are these connectivity options needed?
There are two reasons — one is cost, and the other one is usability. It obviously is cheaper if you are providing something on the board, over an external solution. But for us, the aim was to squeeze the cost to US$ 35. We used Broadcom’s 43438 platform to offer additional connectivity support without increasing the US$ 35 price.

In addition to the cost, the other factor behind the need for the new connectivity options was usability. If you have a fixed hardware platform, then you can invest a lot of time, money and effort to make that platform work very well. That is what we did when adding Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support.

Q What is your take on some advanced connectivity options like NFC and LoRa?
These new options are certainly important for the embedded community. But I don’t think that we will integrate them into the core Raspberry Pi platform. We have a shield standard to let people add new hardware to the single-board computer.

I believe that NFC, LoRa and SigFox are useful to the IoT space in the present scenario. These would become equally useful for every single Raspberry Pi user in the future. But I cannot put in dollars to integrate NFC or any other connectivity options that are yet to be majorly in demand within the community. These features have so far been just of interest to a minority.

Q Some developers are looking for an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) on Raspberry Pi. Why have you left out this cheap feature?
One day, maybe…. An ADC module costs 20 cents, and I do not want to increase the price of Raspberry Pi by 20 cents merely for an ADC module. It could be featured on future versions of Raspberry Pi, though. For now, a majority of people are not demanding ADC. This is the reason we have not provided the converter on the present-generation device.

Q How can Raspberry Pi help enterprises and startups in India and around the world?
In 10 years, we will be set to help enterprises and startups by giving them new employees through the skill sets they acquired on Raspberry Pi. We are also offering a scalable platform to entrepreneurs to let them develop new products. Additionally, we offer our customisation system to enable product development for those who are cost sensitive and form-factor sensitive.

Q What is your take on the future of embedded systems and IoT?
I am quite pessimistic about IoT. The question is: what will the computing platforms look like for the majority of IoT solutions? It will be interesting to see whether hundreds of millions or tens of billions of 50-cent and one-dollar devices such as microcontrollers or traditional data systems will dominate the IoT market, or a large number of 10-dollar devices like Raspberry Pi will lead the race. Also, it is important to look at the connectivity support for IoT devices. It is hard to say whether the devices will come with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and local networking with hubs and bridges, or cellular connectivity through a module, or even some new standards like LoRa and SigFox.
We are already making the best hardware to contribute towards the growth of embedded systems in the future.