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Raspberry Pi was created to solve talent crisis at Cambridge: Eben Upton [Interview]

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Upton told me, “It was certainly very challenging to hit a cost target. It took us years. I think it took us four years, from 2006 when it started, to even have any hardware that was acceptable to us. We were very lucky. The relationship with Broadcom has been very helpful to us in terms of getting access to really good silicon.”

The chip they are using for Raspberry Pi is closer to Upton’s heart as he along with many other people who are involved with Pi were also involved with Broadcom’s BCM2835 chip.

raspberry-pi-hardware

“So this is kind of our chip. The chip that’s used in Raspberry Pi is like our baby so it was very helpful,” said Upton.

The challenges did not stop with the chip. They had come up with a design for the board at the same time set-up a supply chain to deliver the device to those who wanted it.

“It did take us a long time even once we have the chip.It took us time to come up with a design which was cheap enough and had a little enough in additions to the core processing unit. It took us long time to put in place a supply chain business model that will allow us  to operate sustainably with fairly thin margin.”

Even when everything was ready, units packed in the boxed to be shipped there was very serious crisis for the foundation. The devices did not have a CE certificate and Raspberry Pi’s distributors said that they could not ship the device without CE mark.

Raspberry Pi team believed that they didn’t require CE mark as they thought it was “common practice for development hardware to be sold without such certification, with the provision that it should not be considered to be a “finished end product.”

They gave example of BeagleBoard citing its System Reference Manual, but Koen Kooi, Software Engineering Manager, from Circuitco corrected them that BeagleBoard was both FCC/ and CE approved.

The teams worked hard day and night to get CE certification and it worked out without causing any massive delays.

Once the device reached the hands of enthusiasts and developers, it created a revolution. A very passionate, friendly and innovative community started to grow around the device. Companies who deal with free software (or open source) know it very well that no matter how many bright or smart people they have on their payrolls there will always be brighter and smarter people out there who will dwarf the innovation made by the company. Gabe Newell admitted that during LinuxCon. That said there are still a lot of companies which deal with free software but keep the development mostly restricted to their own employees or have dictatorial like control. These companies will lose in the end as they fail to benefit from the engineering talent pool sitting outside their cubicles.

If you create open platforms then you allow your community to kind of take the lead in innovating.

Community is a valuable source or free engineering

Fortunately, the Raspberry Pi team knows the value to the community quite well. Upton was excited to share, “What’s really fantastic about Raspberry Pi is the extent to which other people are contributing to it. The amount of innovation coming out of the community dwarfs the amount of  innovation from us.”

He referred to what Gabe Newell said during his keynote at LinuxCon, “It was also interesting to hear what Gabe Newell said at LinuxCon – if you create open platforms then you allow your community to kind of take the lead in innovating.”

Raspberry Pi has been very careful about their engagement with the community. Upton’s wife Liz Upton looks after the community affairs and she also maintains the news and blog posting on the official site (she helped me in arranging this interview with Upton during LinuxCon, so I can say how active she is).

Speaking about the community engagement Upton told me, “It’s useful and important for us for several reasons. Obviously it gives us an idea of what community needs.”

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