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One decade, 46 million units: Happy birthday, Raspberry Pi
Eben Upton on RISC-V, supply chains, and what's next for the dinky computers
Interview Today marks 10 years since the Raspberry Pi was made available to purchase. We spoke to Pi supremo Eben Upton about the last decade and what the future might hold.
The Raspberry Pi team has elected to mark the milestone on 28 February, it being the last day of the month this year – for many 29 February 2012 was when units were first available. Looking back at 2012, the numbers look almost farcical when one considers how things turned out.
50,000 people downloaded this really primitive operating system for a machine that you couldn't buy!
"We were already aware that it was going to be bigger than expected," says Upton. "We had this idea of doing 1,000 or 10,000 or something... we had a couple of thousand units on order with our first contract manufacturer in China.
"Around Christmas time, when we got the first beta boards back, we put an operating system [based on Debian] online… and it had 50,000 downloads. And all you could do was run it in QEMU (there was a QEMU config you could build that was similar enough to a Raspberry Pi).
"50,000 people downloaded this really primitive operating system for a machine that you couldn't buy!" he exclaims.
And that was when realisation dawned that demand for the hardware would be far higher than a run of 1,000, 10,000 or even 100,000 units.
Upton tells us that approximately 46 million units have been manufactured to date. Although getting hold of one in 2022 is a bit of challenge. More on that later.
While the final iterations of those first Raspberry Pi computers, the Pi 1 Model A+ and B+, can still be purchased, for Upton it was the Raspberry Pi 2 that marked the biggest step change, despite the relatively short period before the 3 arrived in 2016.
"Although Pi 3 kind of took out Pi 2," he says, "Pi 2 is still the impressive one, it's the one where all of the internal architectural cleverness that let us build 2836 is leveraged again to build 2837 [used for later models of the Pi 2 and the Pi 3]… you couldn't have done 3 and 3+ without doing 2 first."
After the Pi 2, Upton ranked the Zero and the latest model, the Pi 4, as significant milestones. "Every product we launch is a milestone," he jokes, "but Pi 4 really is a milestone. There's another chunky 3x of performance, it relaxed the memory constraint, it opened up multiple price points for us [thanks to the memory configurations] and again, it's the jump in performance that opens up different worlds."
Again, assuming one can actually buy one given the global shortages of components impacting every tech vendor.
"We're running at about half a million Pis a month," says Upton. "That's not enough, it's not nothing – it's a lot of Pis… but I still think we have one to two million units of genuine customer backlog."
Upton would dearly like to flex up production, but tells us he has given up speculating when supply chain issues will ease. "I think the situation is making fools of us all," he states before quoting Stein's Law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop," referring to the shortages rather than demand for the computer.
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As for the future, a Raspberry Pi 5 is inevitable but, in a blow to those hoping for something even more exotic in the usually Broadcom Arm SoC, RISC-V isn't on the cards, certainly not in the timeframe for the next generation of Pi. "I can't go out today and license a RISC-V core," says Upton, citing the current state of the ecosystem, "which is even as good as the core of the Raspberry Pi 4."
"Hopefully I will in the future," he adds.
The implosion of the Nvidia/Arm deal has also reduced the chances of a RISC-V Pi (in the 2030 timeframe), down from 20 per cent to 10 per cent, according to Upton. "The ownership of the core of the de-facto standard low-power architecture by an organisation that's also a player was potentially very destabilising... and it was always going to be to the benefit of the obvious alternative architecture."
The Pi has gone far beyond its original remit, becoming popular in commercial settings even as the most "out there" incarnations on the International Space Station continue to do a sterling job in the realm of educational outreach. But what of the future? Raspberry Pi is an undoubted success story; could an acquisition be on the cards?
"I have no plans," says Upton, before perhaps softening his stance: "We're very committed to doing our engineering in Cambridge."
Also the location of chip designer Arm's HQ. ®