The folks over at readwrite had the chance to talk to Raspberry Pi’s cofounder Eben Upton about the Raspberry Pi foundation, DIY hacking, programming, and more. Check out the full interview here.
ReadWrite: What got you really interested in technology in the first place? How did that lead you eventually to the Raspberry Pi project?
Eben Upton: So I actually got started when I was a kid. I have a father who has a certain amount of interest in engineering. He’s not an engineer, he’s an English academic. There were always piles of electrical stuff around the house that I used to play with before I understood what it did. Little things like making a light to have by your bed so you could read after “lights out” and stuff.
And then I got a computer. In the UK we have these machines called BBC Microcomputers, which were 8-bit micros that were build for education. We had them at school, I got into programming at school, and I enjoyed it.
These things weren’t necessarily in school for programming, or at least they didn’t tend to get used for programming. They would get used to run educational software. But I used to program on them. And then I bought one to program at home. I mean, the day I got my BBC micro, I went in my room, turned it on, and never came out again. [Laughs]
Programming is amazing for a kid. When you’re a kid you don’t have a lot of power. You don’t have a lot of agency, a lot of control over the world around you. The great thing about programming is it’s a little world where you do whatever you want. And I certainly found that very compelling.
I’d always been interested in science, math, kind of hard science subjects. Did a lot of computing, did a lot of programming on my BBC. I had a Commodore Amiga after that.
At university I did a mixture of physics, engineering, and computer science. And then that really kind of led me to the Pi. Because after I’d been at university for a decade [while getting a doctorate], I realized that the kids who were arriving hadn’t had the chance to have that set of experiences as a child. You could still get Legos but … that ladder.
We’d kind of pulled the ladder up after us. We built these very sophisticated and user-friendly computers for children to use now. Or not even computers—game consoles and phones and tablets, kind of appliances. But people were being denied that opportunity to tinker. So really Raspberry Pi is an attempt to get back—without kind of being too retro—some of what we kind of feel was lost from the evolution of computers over the last 25 years.
RW: Tell me about inventing the Raspberry Pi.
EU: We tried building some units based on what you’d call microcontroller technology. I don’t know if you’ve come across an [open source electronics prototyping] platform called Arduino? Sort of a similar level of performance to the Arduino. The nice thing about those chips is they’re very available, they’re commodity parts, they’re very cheap and easy to get ahold of.
So we tried that. And we ended up with something which was technically a computer—you plug it into your television and stuff. But it was kind of primitive and it was clear that kids weren’t going to engage with it. So that was prototype one, and that prototype is coming to a museum in Ireland in an exhibition called “Fail.” [Laughs] I’m going to go see it next month. It’s in a glass cabinet as an example of a glorious failure.
The nice thing about that was that was hand built. You can’t really build a modern Raspberry Pi by hand. But this one was primitive enough that you could actually solder it together and I soldered it together in a week. And it was a nice little toy.
After I’d been at university for a decade of so, I went to work for a company called Broadcom, which is based in southern California but has a big office in Cambridge. They make cellphone chips. And we realized that cell phone chips are quite a good fit. They’re quite a good platform for building a Pi-like device, since they have a lot of graphics performance.
I built a prototype based on that, based on a Broadcom dev kit. And that was much more powerful, much more capable, again at the same price point. But the challenge we had with that was that it was really a custom environment. It wasn’t a standards based platform.
We were writing our own SD card drivers, our own file system, our own text editor. You find yourself doing a lot of basic work and although you end up with a platform which is powerful and programmable, it’s completely nonstandard [and] completely unlike any other machine. You don’t get to leverage any of the work that’s already been done by people on desktop platforms. That was prototype two.
The real breakthrough for us was with prototype three. We got hold of another chip from Broadcom which had an ARM processor which was able to run standard Linux. That was really the point where we realized we had something that met all our goals. And that was the product we went to market with.
RW: What does that say to you about the potential demand for DIY projects like the Pi? Are we all going to be DIY hackers one day?
EU: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. There is an enormous demand for it. And I think that there is a tie to the maker community. The maker community is much more developed in American than it is in the UK. We do have maker fairs and hackerspaces now, but it’s probably five years behind where it is in the U.S.
So one thing we found when we started talking about Raspberry Pi, when it started getting international attention, we found we were launching into this very well established community of people who like doing all sorts of DIY activity: knitting, or, you know, woodworking.
So that’s one of the things that led to that surprise increase in volume for the Pi. Makers who see it as a component they can use to build their projects. Which is great!
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