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Raspberry Pi – the tiny British computer turns 10

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If you had to guess, what would you say was the best selling British computer of all time? Not a lot of companies make computers in the UK anymore, so maybe you’d go back a few years. Maybe this Amstrad, it sold more than 2mn units back in the 1980s. Or maybe the BBC Micro. Despite being in schools across the country, it only sold 1.5mn. Its cheaper cousin, the Acorn Electron, even fewer, 250,000 units. Surely the ZX Spectrum then, 2mn of those were sold.

No, the best selling UK computer of all time is also one of the smallest, the Raspberry Pi. Since its launch in 2011 this computer the size of a credit card has been a huge commercial success selling over 30mn units. It’s an incredible UK engineering feat that’s now used by hobbyists, scientists, and industry. And it’s a radically different form factor compared to its 1980s ancestors with a Raspberry Pi Zero selling at $5 apiece. But the team behind this tiny device had another aim. They wanted it to demystify computing. They thought the Raspberry Pi could open the routes for kids into computer science. So why has achieving its social aims proved so difficult?

My name is Eben Upton, and I’m the chief executive of Raspberry Pi Limited. I still think of myself as an engineer, but right now, it’s kind of wrangling this business that’s become a lot bigger than we ever imagined it would be.

Can I describe Eben? He’s sort of always on. He’s extremely driven.

Have we scrubbed the lab for… let’s have a quick look. Test head, that’s not secret. I don’t think we’ve got anything secret.

He doesn’t really sit down and relax very much. If he’s not working he’s working on something that’s not working. My name’s Liz Upton. I’m one of the founders of Raspberry Pi, and I run marketing communications here. I have done since day one.

We make computers. We are a computer company. We make little credit card-sized computers originally intended for education, but now really finding a lot of use elsewhere.

It’s this weird looking little thing that looks like you’ve got it outside the middle of a telephone or something. It’s bristling with GPIO pins and flashing lights. And we really shy away from selling them in boxes as much as we can because we want people to look at that and understand that that’s what a computer is. And it’s actually very, very easy to get into.

So the story of the Pi began as an educational tech product looking to teach young people what a computer was and how to programme it very much in the model of the BBC Micro from the 1980s, which is why they went to see this man.

My office would have been up on the fourth floor up there in the sort of economics and business unit at the BBC. And in 2011, I had a couple of visitors.

Well, we talked to the BBC a lot about the possibility of calling Raspberry Pi a BBC micro computer, and we were repeatedly rebuffed. And probably our last, well, what ended up being our last attempt to engage with the BBC, David Braben, one of our co-founders, and I went down to see Rory, who David knew and took a prototype with us. And the pitch to Rory was, come on, man, help us out. We really want to get the BBC… the BBC logo onto this.

He pitched up at my office here at BBC Television Centre to show me a prototype of this little device so I thought this is great. But there was no way I was going to get it on the telly as a big BBC story. So I got my phone out and shot a little video with David Braben explaining the device, put it on YouTube. I thought I’d blog about it in a bit. And then the next day, I looked at how many people had watched the video, and it was rising very rapidly. It was an incredibly popular video.

I remember sitting and pressing F5 and watching that YouTube views counter go up, and my head was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I was super excited. And then coming home and sitting opposite Liz… it got up to 600,000 on the second day, sat opposite Liz at dinner. And we realised we’d promised 600,000 people that we’d build them a $25 computer, and we really at that point had no idea how we were going to do it. Not even any idea of how we would build one of them for $25. Let alone how we might build 600,000 units.

It was sort of shocking. We knew we had something really, really interesting. I don’t think that it really crystallised just how interesting it was until that very, very first day when the units went on sale. We had 2,000 in the garage on a pallet, and that same day we got 100,000 orders for them. Some more in production but 2,000 was all we had. And this sudden ramp up from little hobby project to oh, this is something quite big, was a shock, a wonderful shock.

She was the first person to realise that this was a thing which might succeed at a scale beyond what we were imagining.

And as the number of Pis sold grew and grew the ways to use it became increasingly creative.

Take one tiny computer, plug-in a keyboard and mouse and a display, and you’ve got a fully fledged desktop computer. It doesn’t run Windows or Mac OS but a version of the free operating system Linux. With a few lines of code you can connect lights, servos and other devices. This little machine has created an explosion of hobby projects across the world, from weather balloons reaching the edge of space, computer-vision cucumber sorting machines, and there’s even one on the International Space Station. So demand for the Pi was high. They have pretty much created a completely new segment of computing that didn’t really exist before, but what about their original goal?

You have a generation of people, a generation of children and young people now, who they’re incredibly proficient computer users, but they either have very little idea of what’s going on under the bonnet.

The history of educational technology is littered with failed ideas. In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte believed his one laptop per child project would change the world by providing a computer for schoolchildren that cost $100. An unimaginably low price back then. Did this obsolete computer serve as a warning to the Raspberry Pi?

Well, this is great. This is great. This is a fascinating object.

Yeah, I do recognise this.

Which is a bit more colourful and childlike, I would say.

I know this is an XO right? Yeah, wow, that is a piece of computing history that I don’t necessarily know how to open. There we are.

Hoorah.

Well there we are.

It’s a beautiful little device. Let’s be honest most schemes fail. Even if they fail, they can have a huge impact. And this had an impact, made people think, at least, about this issue, raised the profile of computing in schools and in development.

This is the canonical edge-tech ed-tech object. You can draw a distinction between computing education and computing for education. This was a computer to help people learn a variety of stuff, where, at least early on, Raspberry Pi was very much about computing education. We’re interested in teaching you about computers.

What lessons have you learned from…

I think as much as anything else what did we learn from this? We learned it was possible. We learned it was possible to make cost-effective electronic products. So that’s the positive thing. The warning that we took from it, is it’s very easy to miss your price targets. And that this was always intended to be a $100 laptop, and I don’t believe ever was $100 laptop. It’s about setting a price point and then figuring out what feature set you can offer at a high level of quality within that price point. That’s how this never got down to $100, where the cheapest Raspberry Pi you can go and buy in the market cost $5.

Perhaps the OLPC faced challenges that the Pi doesn’t. The lack of IT support in rural areas of developing countries. And being overtaken by the smartphone, for example. Eben studied physics and engineering, a PhD in computing, and an MBA all at Cambridge University. He later became Director of Studies for Computer Science at St John’s College. And when we went to speak to him, it was in Cambridge, where Raspberry Pi is based.

We’ve spoken about this before and you said, sort of the real measure of success would be when Pi improved the quality of computer science students at university. Have we seen that yet?

When we started Raspberry Pi we had two problems at Cambridge. We had a quantity problem, and I think we had a quality problem. We didn’t have enough students applying. We had about 200 students applying for about 100 places, which is a terrible ratio by Cambridge standards. And we had a problem. When people coming in the door, they were very, very bright kids. We never admitted anyone who wasn’t bright. But what we couldn’t rely on any longer was that they had some pre-existing experience.

I think we’ve had success on both fronts. We’ve gone from having roughly 200 applicants for 100 places, to last year, I think having about 1,500 applicants. So it’s gone from being one of the easiest, nominally easiest, courses to get into at Cambridge, to being pretty much the hardest along with, I think, veterinary science.

But what’s about that plan to improve the computing student pipeline? Here’s the total number of undergraduates studying computer science degrees in the UK each year. So there’s no question. The numbers have gone up. But when you overlay the number of female students, that number has barely budged in 10 years. So what’s it really like being a woman who works in computing?

My name is Alice Bartlett. I am a principal engineer here at the Financial Times. And that means that I write the software of FT.com and also the financial sciences app. There were 120 students in my undergraduate year and four of them were women. So a lot of my memory of it is just characterised by being such an outlier. Like really obviously, not like everyone else. People who are outliers of any kind of visible aspect will recognise this feeling. But when you go into a lecture hall and every person looks at you. That was just what it was like every time I went to a lecture, basically. I mean it felt like that. I don’t think everybody actually was looking at me, but I was so conscious of being a woman.

When you applied to study computer science, did you think that was what it was going to be like?

Yes because I was the only woman that did an A-level in computing in my year group. So the stereotype here would be, women aren’t very good at writing software. And the feeling I take from that as a woman who is writing software is that I must not conform to that stereotype. So I must work extra hard. I cannot be at all vulnerable to this accusation. And it did make me kind of cagey at university with people, but it did also make me work very hard. It’s so flatly stupid, the idea that women aren’t good at writing code. But to give you a quote that I can remember, women aren’t very good at writing code because they like talking too much.

Wow.

So I mean, I’m a woman who likes talking, but also… It’s really… it’s just… yeah, it is just kind of… it’s very strange.

I’ve now spoken to PR agencies and things which have said, oh, well, you need to make it in pink. You need to make projects about dresses and about knitting. And it’s such nonsense. It’s errant nonsense to suggest that these are things which are especially interesting for girls to do. They’re not. You just need to make it so it’s not weird.

Women used to write code, in the 1950s. It was considered a sort of extension of secretarial work, and then somewhere in the 1980s the numbers of women studying computer science dropped. And I think they got to the very rock bottom at about the time I was doing computer science.

Why do you think that so few women enter this field?

The gender divide… the question of why do we have more female engineers? Such a hard question to answer. Let me try and put some thoughts together. The gender imbalance in computing… the way that people of my generation got exposure to computers was particularly inclined to bias towards boys.

Whether it’s superheroes in comic books or men on the cover of magazines, the computing scene in the 1980s definitely looked a certain way.

The home computing scene of the 1980s, very computer games oriented. The computer games that were promoted by their publishers as being things for boys. And so the people who are sitting in front of computers were disproportionately male, and so the people who had the opportunity to become computer engineers were disproportionately male. So there’s definitely something going on there.

I think we are making progress, particularly Code Clubs a great example, where half of nine to 13-year-olds attending code club are female.

Why do you think that there is such a barrier, especially for women trying to enter?

Oh, it’s difficult, isn’t it? There’s a lot to do on this. One of the things the Raspberry Pi Foundation is working on at the moment actually is a project on why there are fewer girls in computing. And my own daughter came to me last week and said, I don’t want to do Code Club at school. I mean there are too many boys there, which I was absolutely heartbroken by.

I think it’s really complicated. I think representation is very important. And so having more women in tech brings more women in tech. It’s a long game when you’re talking about getting eight-year-old girls into computers. About five years ago was the emergence of Code Academy. So that’s a place where you can go for 12 weeks and have an intensive course that will teach you all you need to know to be hired into a professional job as a web developer. That’s the single thing that’s really pushed the number of women up that I’ve seen professionally. Like it’s been huge.

The thing that it hasn’t done is really worked on diversity along other axis because they’re quite expensive. You need to be able to take 12 weeks away from work because you’re not paid whilst you’re there. And you need to be able to afford the course, generally, which is sort of thousands of pounds. What we see is a diversification along gender but not so much along socioeconomic groups, although age also. It brings more older people into the workforce as well because of the career changing aspect.

My name is Bethan Staton, and I cover education and other bits of public policy at the FT. Things like code camps have been really interesting actually in just getting kids to engage with coding in more creative ways. There’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that bootcamps have more success in attracting women than other formats for teaching computing, especially for adults. It’s difficult to get very decisive statistics, but it’s kind of more around the sort of 40 per cent mark for women or even higher, which obviously still isn’t quite there. But it’s better than at university, for example.

And one of the reasons for that is, in part, because women tend to be more receptive and interested in lifelong learning opportunities than men. And it’s partly because of adjustments like, you can do the coding bootcamp from your computer at home. So if you’ve got kids you can arrange it around your life more easily, which just makes it more accessible to women.

What would your advice be for a young woman who was studying computing, but maybe wasn’t sure if they wanted a career in it?

It made me very sad actually. This year, one of our female interns was offered a job after her internship, and she said she didn’t really fancy coming along because she didn’t feel we were diverse enough. And it had me absolutely clutching my head because one of the reasons that we don’t have very many young women here, is that there haven’t been very many young women going into computing at university.

I would like people to understand that we don’t have a lack of women in organisations because we don’t want them. We’re in a building full of tech organisations here, and sadly, there are more male programmers. We have a number of women here. We’re seeing more coming through. I want to see more in work, and I’d love them to come here.

Is the Raspberry Pi a success? I think it depends what you see its aims are. I’d only say that when it comes to gender balance in computing, particularly, in schools, the figures don’t look great.

It’s been a huge success commercially, and it’s been an important new device in manufacturing. Nobody expected that at the beginning, that lots of companies would decide, oh, this could be a useful cheap device to put in the manufacturing process. It’s been Britain’s best-selling ever computer.

I think probably they learnt a lot through the process of building this extremely impressive computer at such a low price point. That is absolutely wild and incredibly impressive. I think the social aspirations of the project… It’s a very technologist type thing to think that you can fix a socioeconomic problem with technology basically. And I think, that’s kind of what happened here.

If you were to really look at the problem, it’s so complicated getting people from different socioeconomic backgrounds into computing. It would take a really well-rounded team of people who were versed in all kinds of different areas of life, not just a man who has made an incredibly impressive computer, to fix that problem. So I think if you were to truly really wanted to set out on that journey, it would need both the Raspberry Pi team, as it stands, but also people who work in social work and people who… all of the other stuff because it’s so much more complicated than just there isn’t a cheap enough computer.

It is an impossible task for Raspberry Pi alone to change the fabric of who studies and works in computing, but what its products have done is ignite interest in children and adults alike to create their own inventions through computer programming. Beyond the hobbyist community, the Pi has stayed loyal to UK manufacturing, while making sure its products stay affordable and accessible to both consumers and businesses.

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