10 Years of Raspberry Pi: The $25 Computer Has Come a Long Way
The UK in the 1980s was ground zero for the microcomputer revolution. Inexpensive computers based on 8-bit processors flooded the market, teaching a generation to program using built-in BASIC interpreters. Homes had devices like the ZX81 and Sinclair’s Spectrum, while schools used Acorn’s BBC Micro.
It wasn’t like today’s PCs. They were designed and built to be accessible, with IO ports accessible directly from the integrated programming environments. Turn one on and you were ready to start programming.
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But then things changed: 16-bit machines were more expensive, and technical and marketing failures began to push the pioneers out of the market. The final nail in the coffin was the IBM PC and its myriad clones, geared towards the enterprise market and designed to run, not build, applications.
It has become more difficult to acquire computer skills, as personal computers are slowly being replaced by game consoles, smartphones and tablets. How could a curious child learn to code or build their own hardware?
The answer first came from the Arduino, a small ARM-based development board that served as a target for easy-to-learn programming languages. But it wasn’t a computer; you couldn’t hook it up to a keyboard and monitor and use it.
Enter the Raspberry Pi
Eben Upton, an engineer at microcontroller chipmaker Broadcom, was frustrated with the status quo. Looking at the current generation of ARM-based microcontrollers, he realized that it was possible to use a low-cost (and relatively low-power) chip to build a single-board computer. By using a system-on-chip architecture, you can combine the CPU, GPU, and memory on a single chip. Using the SOC’s general-purpose IO ports, you can integrate it into an easily expandable device, booting from a simple SD storage card.
Work on what would become the Raspberry Pi began in 2006, with a team of volunteers working with a simple ARM SOC. The intention was to deliver a single board computer that would sell for $25. This promise was kept, and when orders were opened to the general public, there was a rush for one of the first batches, as it was a simple Linux box that could be used for just about anything. Later versions added support for other operating systems, including Windows 10 Internet of Things and a Unix-like version of the operating system developed for the Raspberry Pi’s distant ancestor, the Acorn Archimedes.
I spoke with Eben shortly after the launch at Maker Faire in San Mateo, where he was demonstrating the first Pis to the US maker community. He told me that he started out thinking like a beginner: “I asked how I could solve this problem in the cheapest and easiest way. This involved working with his then-employer to gain access to the chips and building a production line to quickly turn the Raspberry Pi into a consumer device. As he noted, volume was key from day one, if the Pi was to have the impact he thought it needed, “There’s a big difference between having ten thousand or a hundred thousand units there. -low and have a million in use.”
In 2012, a million pis seemed like an ambitious dream. Now they’re selling over 6 million units a year, with over 40 million devices sold by May 2021. With devices made in Raspberry Pi’s own factory in Wales, it’s helping to regenerate an economy left in shock after the shutdown of much of the region’s industry. Infrastructure.
Four generations of Raspberry Pi
Over the past decade, the range of devices coming out of this factory has grown enormously. We are now on the fourth generation of the standard Pi, which has seen major improvements over the years. Although the card’s basic form factor remains much the same, the processor and memory have increased. The latest versions of the Raspberry Pi 4 use a quad-core Broadcom ARM Cortex-A72 running at 1.8 GHz and have up to 8 GB of RAM. This makes them suitable for most desktop computers, although the most high-end version costs $75.
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Other form factors have arrived, with the lightweight and inexpensive Raspberry Pi Zero series. A second generation launched this year, with the processing power of the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in a much smaller form factor and a much lower price. Spending $15 for a Wi-Fi enabled computer is impressive, even if it only has 512MB of RAM.
Key to the Raspberry Pi’s success is the charitable foundation that runs the project and helps provide educational content around the device. It helps run global educational programs, as well as providing books and other content to help new users get started in programming. One useful tool is the educator-only publication Hello World, which aims to provide teachers with the tools and techniques to get the most out of classroom devices. It is available as a free PDF in the UK, with printed copies for the rest of the world from the organization’s store. Other publications include a magazine for makers, HackSpace, and another for Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, The MagPi.
More than a computer, it’s an ecosystem
There’s also Raspberry Pi’s commitment to allowing third parties to build on its hardware. Pis can be purchased in bulk, ready to integrate into your own devices. Alongside this program is the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, a compact refactoring of the familiar Pi. Designed so that most of its ports can only be accessed from one set of IO pins, the Compute Module is a way to build hardware around the Pi, treating it like a simple plug-in module. This is a popular approach for IoT devices, as well as compact Kubernetes clusters that can run at the edge of the network.
Raspberry Pi continued to evolve. It now ships its own silicon, in the form of the RP2040 microcontroller. Integrated with its own $5 Raspberry Pi Pico, it’s a quick way to build your own low-power devices using open-source languages like CircuitPython. The chip is also available on its own, and we’re already seeing it power keyboards and e-paper display badges.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Raspberry Pi isn’t the Pi itself, but the myriad single-board computers it inspired. These include alternative ARM devices like the Pine 64, the AI-focused NVIDIA Jetson, and the Intel-based Latte Panda. Some are cheaper than the Pi, others more expensive, but what’s important is that they’re all on the market, creating a vibrant market of devices that get cheaper and better every year.
Ten years of the Raspberry Pi have passed in what seems like an instant. I feel like just yesterday I was sitting at that picnic table talking to Eben about the launch of the Pi. It’s now a growing family of devices, taking us back to the 1980s with its own $70 off-the-shelf Raspberry Pi 400 built-in keyboard, but with all the ports of its single-board sibling. It will be very interesting to see what the next 10 years will bring to the Pi, and where it will take educators and makers.