Raspberry Pi Foundation director Eben Upton wasn’t expecting the kind of demand that his $25 (or $35, if you want networking) thumb-stick sized computer would elicit from the buying public. The non-profit organization had originally planned an initial 10,000 unit run for the Pi, but they hit that number fast – within hours, in fact. Interest is high in the super-affordable, yet versatile pint-sized PC, which was originally conceived as a way to help young aspiring computer engineers get hands-on experience before they began formal, higher learning academic training, and it’s clear why; the Pi could disrupt not just one, but a range of industries.
Upton, who spoke to BetaKit in an interview, saw the need for an affordable, relatively simple computing device as a way to help kids who aren’t academically inclined, or from the best backgrounds, get into engineering. ”It’s about giving kids access to an opportunity that I know has helped me have a more pleasant life,” Upton said. “I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to be an engineer, because you get to play with cool guys and they pay you for it.”
Part of doing that involves offering kids a route to engineering careers that might bypass university entirely, Upton said. “I know a lot of people my age who left school when they were 16 or 18, and went straight into programming jobs,” he noted. “That’s a path that isn’t really available anymore.” But he also said the Pi should help students get hands-on experience that will serve them well in university, too. Initially, the project was conceived as a way to help Cambridge, where Upton taught at the school’s computer laboratory, increase the amount and quality of its computer science admissions.
But despite its original focus, the Pi’s appeal isn’t limited to just students and future engineers. Upton says the Pi seems to have especially struck a chord with people in the developing world. The Pi has already drawn a lot of comparisons to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, which delivers low-cost notebook computers to children in developing countries. OLPC has run into problems however, because it has to sell to governments, not individuals, in order to reach the volumes it needs to be able to produce its notebooks affordably.
“Our economic volume is about 10,000 units,” Upton said. “You get to 10,000 units, they don’t get any cheaper, and that means that we can sell to individuals.” That means that it has the potential to fuel much more grassroots adoption in developing countries, which should also make it less susceptible to accusations of corruption or misuse by governments who are viewed as self-interested. It’s true that the Pi requires an external display, unlike the OLPC, but as Upton points out, TVs are actually one of the things people in many developing countries are actually likely to have access to.
The Pi’s appeal isn’t limited to those at the lower end of the global economic spectrum, though. “You look at a point of information terminal, and generally it’s got about $200-$300 of PC behind it,” Upton said. “There’s absolutely no reason for it [to cost that much].” The Pi foundation won’t handle selling to those customers themselves, but Upton said they will be happy to sell the tech to third parties who can then resell branded Pi display information and advertising systems to clients, while still undercutting the competition by a significant margin.
Both Pi’s Model A (without wired network port) and Model B (with wired networking) lack Wi-Fi connectivity, but Upton says it’s actually fairly easy to add aftermarket using an inexpensive USB Wi-Fi dongle, many of which are not much larger than a stack of two or three pennies. Even though that might raise costs to as much as $50 per unit, it still provides businesses in any industry with a very inexpensive way to turn any available display into a connected, completely programmable rich-media delivery device. That’s a very attractive proposition across a range of industries, especially health care, education, and marketing.
“Tens and tens and tens of thousands. I guess the big challenge will be getting those made and getting them out to people,” Upton said about the orders. It seems almost prescient now; we spoke to Upton on Wednesday, and the Raspberry Pi foundation posted a blog update today about a manufacturing error that could delay some of the later batches of Pis already on order, but hiccups like this are to be expected when any device goes into mass production for the first time.
If all else goes smoothly, the first customers should have the Pi in their hands in a couple weeks’ time, and that’s when people can really start to get a sense of the device’s long-term potential. Expect to be surprised at what the Linux-powered mini computer is capable of in the hands of the right hackers.