10 Years of the Raspberry Pi

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February 28, 2022

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Ok, so, we’re a day early. But it was either that, or being a day late. The original Raspberry Pi released on 29th February 2012, with the goal of providing a low cost computing platform for educational use.

Inspired by the BBC Micro from the 80’s, the focus on education was intended to increase the number and the quality of students studying computer science, which had been seen to fall in the early 2000s.

As the Pi turns 10, let’s take a look at the history of the venerable machine, and look at where the Pi is heading for the future.

What the Pi Can Do

The Raspberry Pi foundation is a British registered charity. Incorporated in 2009, the foundation was responsible for the design and development of the Raspberry Pi, with support from chip designer Broadcom.

The foundation uses income from the sale of the Pi, plus any donations, to provide resources for the device. The foundation has several ventures to further this, including:

  • 4 magazine publications (MagPi, Hello World, Wireframe and Custom PC)
  • Raspberry Pi ‘Jams’ in the UK – these are meet-up events to bring together those interested in the Pi
  • Partnerships with organisations in developing countries, providing Pi’s to those without access to PCs

The foundation is responsible for a number of programming software tools, such as Scratch, designed to make programming more accessible to a younger audience.

The range of documentation and educational sources, including those made by third parties, has contributed greatly to the Pi’s success. Despite facing competition from other similarly designed (but generally more powerful) competition, the Pi has remained the device of choice.

There are (admittedly limited) schematics available for their hardware, which is more than would be available from a typical hardware vendor. The compute module line of devices not only allows third parties to tap into the Pi market, but also encourages people to look into hardware design, to create a device that better suits their needs.

Success Outside Education

While the main goals of the Pi series are based in education, they have found a broad range of uses with the public.

Probably the most widespread use of the Pi is to create low-power media centres/servers, using software such as Kodi. With H.264 hardware decoding, HDMI CEC support, and OS’s tailored for this use case, the device is a cheap and easy way to convert your TV into a smart TV.

Arguably the greatest success of the Pi Foundation has been the steadfast commitment to the $35 price point, even in the face of inflation and improving hardware specifications. Just to account for inflation since 2012, the price point should have risen to ~$43. This has kept the main device accessible to the widest audience possible, which in my opinion, is vital for their educational goals.

The introduction of the Pi Zero line dropped the price point further, providing an even smaller, cheaper device which would be easier to integrate into hardware projects. A Pi powered robot, for example, is unlikely to require ethernet or 4 USB ports. While their hardware design hasn’t been perfect (more on that below), they’ve created devices that do a good job of catering for certain audiences.

Here’s a great example – in 2020, the Pi Zero was used to power ventilators, with the Pi foundation increasing production to meet this extra demand. The low cost and relatively fast manufacturing turnaround made the device ideal during the COVID-19 pandemic, where ventilator demand rocketed.

With over 40 million lifetime sales across their range, it’s fair to say the Pi has been a massive success in so many ways.

What They Got Wrong

The Pi’s life so far has not been without issue, with both hardware and software issues hindering the device.

The original Raspberry Pi used polyfuses to protect the device from high current draw over USB. The issue was that the polyfuses chosen were intended to limit the device to just 100mA – much less than the 500mA that is assumed for a USB 2.0 port. Using unpowered hubs, hard drives or even some memory sticks were enough to trip a polyfuse, preventing the use of the accessory. Fortunately, polyfuses are designed to reset after a short period of time, so no permanent damage resulted from one tripping. An update to the Pi 1 design later swapped the polyfuses with 0 ohm resistors.

The Pi 2 featured a much improved design, in particular, on the power regulation side. The device did have its quirks though – the flash of a xenon camera was enough to cause a reboot, due to an unencapsulated chip which was sensitive to the xenon flash.

The latest version of the Pi, the Pi 4, includes a USB C power connector for the first time. The new power standards making use of the USB C port allow the device to negotiate the voltage it requires from the charger, with the goal of making chargers compatible with a wider range of devices.

In order for ‘smart’ USB C chargers to put out the correct voltage to a device, they rely on resistance being supplied on each of the two CC lines. The first run of the Pi 4 didn’t do this, instead routing both CC lines through a single resistor. This meant the Pi could not be powered through smart chargers.

Software issues have plagued the Pi since launch, with hardware video acceleration proving to be an insurmountable obstacle to decent video playback through a web browser. The closed-source nature of the firmware running on the CPU/GPU has made this a greater challenge, though this firmware is gradually being replaced with an open source release.

If nothing else, it is fair to say that issues (especially the hardware ones) are fixed fairly quickly – nothing is perfect, and it would be hard to expect that from a charitable foundation.

The Future

Over the past year or two, there have been rumours of a possible IPO for Raspberry Pi Trading Ltd, which could potentially change the direction of the project.

With the Pi Foundation currently owning the trading arm, all profits from selling Pi hardware are ploughed back into the foundation, for future development and further charitable uses.

It is hard to imagine this arrangement will continue following an IPO – it is inevitable that shareholders would want a return on their investment, and profits will need to stay with the trading arm to make that happen.

On the flip side, an expansion outside of the goals of the foundation could be beneficial. The RP2040 and Pi Pico saw a first for the Pi in designing their own processor from scratch. There has often been a clamour for more powerful, feature filled Pi hardware, the sales of which could massively boost profits for Raspberry Pi Trading Ltd. Provided some of this finds its way back to the Pi Foundation, this could be a net positive for all involved.

It will be interesting to see where the Pi heads over its second decade. One thing is for sure, the Raspberry Pi will be a mainstay of hardware tinkerers for years to come.

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