Faced with a yawning skills gap approaching the technology industry several years ago, a group of Cambridge University graduates designed the “Raspberry Pi” — a small computer intended as a silver bullet of sorts — to bootstrap computer science education around the world. It uses off the shelf components to form a low cost, versatile platform through which it is hoped a new generation of software developers and hardware engineers will be fostered.
The idea seems to have worked — and then some. Initial demand saw several hundred people a second registering interest with production partners of the project. Over the first weeks, over two million people pre-ordered the tiny computers — many were caught up in the excitement and had no idea what they might use the computers for — they still don’t know.
The success of the Raspberry Pi caught everybody off guard — spawning school computer programming clubs, an explosion in the “maker” community, and copy-cat hardware projects throughout the world. This year has seen the launch of the “Raspberry Pi 400” — a return to the 8 bit form factor roots of those who flagged the skills gap and designed the Pi. It has sold-out almost everywhere in the run-up to Christmas.
Tilting at consumer windmills
The Raspberry Pi story got me thinking about how we view computers today — how much we take for granted. We buy a mobile phone or a laptop, switch it on, and expect it to “just work”. We are not supposed to take an interest in what it’s doing behind its pretty icons and slick animations.
While this level of abstraction is wonderful from a corporate point of view (support is cheaper, brand lock-in is easier, more manufacturing corners can be cut), in the longer term it’s a disaster.
After a couple of generations, children come through college having no interest in the inner workings of the world. All development becomes “high level”. Development atrophies and price gouging begins.
Mobile phones are a siren call
After launching spectacularly successful mobile phones in the late 2000s, Apple and Samsung did well enough quickly enough and grew a big enough patent portfolio to essentially perform a “headshot” on the mobile phone market. You can’t argue that they haven’t played their cards perfectly over the last decade — but where does it leave us?
It leaves us with a world where a few dominant players build prohibitively expensive closed platforms, prevent all competition, and can control the supply chain to such an extent that thousands of people work in deplorable conditions with little or no avenue to cause change.
The future must remain open
The Raspberry Pi is important. It doesn’t tip a balance, but it starts oiling the hinge that will be tipped by the next generation. It reminds us that we don’t have to purchase proprietary hardware at hugely inflated prices built under awful conditions in third world sweatshops.
The Raspberry Pi reminds us that alternative computing platforms exist — and the skills they teach through open hardware and software will form the bedrock of the future.
The Raspberry Pi reminds us that when we work together, share experience, nurture talent, and foster ingenuity, the world is a much better place.
Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 22, 2020.