To Redefine Computing, Have A Couple Beers: The Raspberry Pi Creation Story

The vision for Raspberry Pi, a new and much-hyped $25 computer, came as cranky Cambridge academics gathered for happy hour.

Raspberry Pi, a $25 computer whose makers hope to inspire a new generation of programmers, recently put out its first 10 models for sale on eBay. (These collector’s items are going for way more than $25.) A few years ago, though, the little device was nothing more than the gleam in the eye of a few cranky computer scientists gathered at their Cambridge lab. The Raspberry Pi foundation, as its director Eben Upton tells Co.Create, is "one of those beer-powered startups."

A few years ago, Upton was a Cambridge academic, and he and his friends in the computer science department had a Friday-evening tradition of gathering to drink beer, play chess, and "eat crisps." It was a weekly happy hour, but there was increasingly little that was happy about it. With each passing year, particularly during college applications season, it became woefully apparent how the U.K.'s pool of young programming talent was shrinking. "There was a constant decline. It was a depressing experience," he recalls. "We’d gone from a world where every schoolchild applying was expected to be able to program a computer at the lowest level in '95, to, by 2005, the point where a good applicant was someone who’d written a webpage." The old crop could manipulate computers at their very roots. The new crop could blog.

Upton, together with colleagues Alan Mycroft and Robert Mullins, got to wondering why this was the case. It had to do, they thought, with the rise of hand-holding operating systems that had turned computers into magical black boxes. The devices they’d grown up on in the '80s had booted up straight into a command line, a phenomenon that piqued many a youngster’s curiosity. Now, to gain access to a command line, "you have to download software," says Mullins. "It has to occur to you to do it." Much rarer today are those auspicious moments of the rabbit hole of coding suddenly opening up before a child.

The group began to envision a new kind of computer that would replicate some of the experiences that had first gotten them excited about programming. Raspberry Pi is credit card-sized; it can plug into any TV, mouse, keyboard, and so on lying around the house. The version dedicated for the educational market (expected in the second half of 2012; this first crop is for developers) will come housed in a clear case, so kids can see the computer’s innards, and it will boot into an educational environment they can use to program. The language will probably vary depending on age: a Raspberry Pi for 10-year-olds may run Logo, a language that lets you control a turtle, while one for teenagers might let you boot into a more capable language like Python. And since the devices are so cheap, they will be widely available for students, each of whom can own and care for a Raspberry Pi as they would their own precious iThing.

Early on, the team decided to make the Raspberry Pi project a nonprofit effort. This changed the game, says Upton, who has worked on three startups before. A typical startup needs to both create and capture value, he says, whereas a nonprofit needs only create it, allowing others to sweep in, clone, and scale--something the foundation actively encourages.

The decision to take the nonprofit route also enabled relationships and business deals that otherwise would have been impossible. "We are building these 10,000 at a time. The problem with building anything 10,000 at a time is that no one wants to talk to you." It simply isn’t worthwhile for many component suppliers. But once a partnership with Raspberry Pi becomes an element of corporate responsibility, discussions become possible that wouldn’t be otherwise. Even as it was, it took years of delicate maneuvering for Upton to convince his current employer, Broadcom, to come on board as Raspberry Pi’s chip supplier. Broadcom and other suppliers are now eager supporters of the little computer, which is fast becoming famous.

"If the feeling was I was making my fortune with this, it would be much harder to have relationships at small volume," says Upton. "From time to time I look around and think, This is massive, if only I could cream off a little bit of profit… but you realize the whole thing would just be poisoned." He calls the group’s decision to take the nonprofit route "fantastic," in retrospect.

Looking back on how Upton et al.'s idea made it into reality, Upton points, too, to the importance of Jack Lang, Cambridge’s entrepreneur-in-residence at the time. "Jack is a hub, if you like," says Upton. Lang helped forge a number of connections as the academics began to turn their vision into a business. "Whenever universities try to formalize the process" of spinning off ideas into businesses, says Lang, "it ends up killing it." Having someone around in a less formal capacity, like Lang, proved just right: Lang wound up being "a sounding board and a bridge to the business community."

Lang wasn’t present at those beery happy hours, though; "he’s more of a cheese and wine kind of guy," says Upton.

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