How Raspberry Pi taught British tech to be world-class
16th Jul 2013 | 13:35
The tiny computer with massive repercussions
In some countries, people trade arms. In others, drugs are smuggled across borders. But in several African countries right now, a computer board no bigger than a bank card is being filtered in via discreet means.
The Raspberry Pi launched just over a year ago and it's already making waves around the world. Big waves.
"These pop up in all sorts of environments," Raspberry Pi founder and executive director Eben Upton tells us. "Although we haven't focused on it, it's happening in Africa."
"These are kind of suitcase Pis. They're Pis that haven't necessarily gone through formal distribution," he says. "What happens is that people put them in suitcases and carry them in."
While Raspberry Pi's distributors cover 85 per cent of the world's GDP, some African countries, though very populous, don't contribute enough for them to be seen as economically viable enough. "We didn't think about the developing world early on. And then what we found is that it's kind of just been cropping up there anyway."
The success of the Pi in the developing world has caught Upton and the rest of the team by surprise, but as he admits, it also makes perfect sense: "You've just entered the middle class and the first thing you buy is a television, a lot of people buy a television before they buy a fridge.
"And then you've got this television, maybe a second hand television that's been exported from the West. And then you can invest a little bit more and make it a computer."
It's a fascinating chapter in the Raspberry Pi story that a lot of people will have skipped over. After all, this tiny computer has its humble roots all the way back in Cambridge, where Eben Upton began the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2009.
Despite being told by the East of England Development Agency that Pi was an "unsellable product", Upton's team was determined to prove that this was the key to restoring life back into computer science in the UK. "We were told no one would buy this," he says.
And in February 2012 that vision became a reality as the Raspberry Pi launched official. A year later it soared past expectations and sold one million units, the bulk of which are manufactured in Wales. But the chip itself, a Broadcom BCM2835 SoC based on ARM architecture, isn't a product - it's an answer to a fundamental problem with Britain's education system, itself a key link in the chain of the UK's technology industry.
Over the years, computer science in Britain has been deformed into an ICT curriculum that's driven out enjoyment and the understanding of what a variable is, and prioritised the teaching of PowerPoint and other less-than-thrilling, software-focused activities. That's exactly what Pi is here to change.
Pi in the sky
The Pi project was partly inspired its 1980s predecessor-of-sorts, the BBC Micro, which Upton can't help but keep dropping into conversation like some fond memory of better times. For Eben and his team (of which gaming icon David Braben is also a part), Pi is about giving today's generation a BBC Micro of their own. In fact, one of Pi's founders, Jack Lang, was himself involved with the creation of the Micro those many years ago.
Now, little over a year since its launch, the fruits of team Pi's efforts are plain to see. All over the world people have been finding hundreds of inspired ways to use their tiny computers.
"The one I was impressed by very early on was the ballooning one," says Upton, referring to David Akerman, who turned his Raspberry Pi into a near-space craft by sending it up to an altitude of 25 miles with a webcam strapped on.
Upton also sees some inspiration in Google's recent £500,000 grant to the Zoological Society of London to have cameras installed in Kenya to survey for rhino poachers.
"I thought that's got real potential to have kids in school build one of these things [using a Pi], send it off to Africa, have it installed and get the feed from there," he says. "It's got a bit of stuff to do with computers, but it's actually much more about exciting kids about science in general, about zoology."
The UK's secret weapon
Pi's potential is limited only by the imagination of the beholder. Ok, and perhaps a few restrictions of the hardware for the time being. "We'll have to change chip. We've always said we'll have to change chip sooner or later, probably later rather than sooner," Upton tells us. "I don't think we're going to be shipping an ARM11 in 2020."
But right now Pi is enjoying gradual world domination, spreading its message to the masses and showing a new generation of kids why coding is a lot easier and more interesting than they probably think.
"I think what's surprised maybe a little bit is how quickly we've gone from having the majority of the awareness of Pi and the majority of sales in the UK, to being a proper global business where we're really just looking at the last few territories where we're trying to get penetration," he says.
Raspberry Pi is about making this industry fascinating again, about giving Britain a reason to be excited about technology. Raspberry Pi has turned into a great British tech success stories, but in order for it to really work it has to have the weight of the education system behind it.
Back in 2011, Google's Eric Schmidt criticised the British curriculum for failing to engage young people in science and technology. Now, a new curriculum is set to take over as early as 2014, putting computer science at the forefront, and Upton could not sound more excited. "It's absolutely amazing," he beams. "All this stuff about little kids needing to know what a variable is."
"If you made the school computer course just about building robots and writing computer games, A, the kids would all love it, and B, it would teach them lots of useful interesting stuff that would help them compete in the jobs market and help us as a country compete in the global economy."
And yet, bizarrely, there's a campaign to keep things exactly the way they are right now. "It's criminally, treasonously insane," says Upton. "It's businesses who want drones who have been pre-trained."
All you have to do is look down the line to see that something's wrong with the current model. With an ageing, male-oriented technology sector, something has to change in Britain. "Obviously if you go to a tech company and you look around there's a preponderance of guys in their thirties and forties," says Upton.
"Something historic has been completely screwed up. Where are the women? In hard engineering, design chips, there's a real preponderance of older people. There's a sign that something's broken."
Time for a shake-up
As a startup, Raspberry Pi knows all too well the tribulations of getting an idea off the ground in Britain, no matter how big the ambition might be. "I think we do have challenges in the UK around access to finance," says Upton.
"Often the quality of decision making is arbitrary or political," he says. "It doesn't go to people who are good at technology, it goes to people who are good at filling in forms. And that's always disheartening to see that happen. I've seen companies in Cambridge get funded, and you look at it and you think 'why are you getting funded?'"
That's not to say that Britain isn't contributing its fair share of names to the tech space - just look at ARM and Imagination Technologies - but if we want to be truly world-beating, it's up to the new generation to learn the necessary skills to do so. And it's up to Raspberry Pi to help get them there.
"I don't think we necessarily need to think we need to be slamming a Microsoft out the door every ten years," says Upton. "If you look at Israel, it doesn't grow a lot of large hi-tech firms, but it's very, very good at growing small hi-tech firms and selling them to large American high tech firms."
Still, Microsofts or no Microsofts, there remains an unshakable cynicism in the British attitude that runs through the veins of the industry. "There's almost a sense sometimes in the funding markets in the US where people are keen to fund because they don't want to risk being the one who missed out," says Upton.
"People will invest because they don't want to be the one who's turning down the next Instagram. Where in the UK, maybe people don't do this because they don't want to be the guy who put money into the dog. It's always that difference in outlook between Britain and the US."
This is just the beginning
As for Pi, what do Upton and his team have planned for the horizon? "More focus on the user experience," he tells us. So far Pi has excelled in targeting the more tech savvy children as well as those with more computer-literate parents. But The Raspberry Pi crew want to tap into the wider audience.
"If all we do is get all the kids who are kind of tech savvy anyway and that way inclined, yeah it will help a little bit, but the worry is that if you do that all you're doing is robbing physics and maths, you're just moving the partitions around in this pool of usual suspects," says Upton.
By making a more polished product at both the hardware and software level, Upton is convinced that Pi can bag those who are still slipping through the net.
But can the true success of Raspberry Pi ever be measured? "It's fun to measure it by volume," says Upton, "but in the educational mission we're only going to know in five or ten years time when we see whether we've manage to get a significant number of kids interested."
As Raspberry Pi and the new curriculum stand hand in hand, ushering in tomorrow's tech pioneers, we can only be optimistic that this is just the start of something much bigger for British technology.