The Raspberry Pi was expected to sell around 10,000 units when it was launched in 2012. It has now sold 10m, or, as the inventor Eben Upton put it with an engineer’s precision, three orders of magnitude more than he was expecting when he started. The Pi is a very small, very cheap computer that is astonishingly powerful. In its minimal form it costs around £30; add a keyboard, a screen, and possibly some extra storage, and it will do everything most people want from a computer except play contemporary video games. It’s designed for a different sort of play: the kind where you make up the game yourself. The Raspberry Pi is a conscious attempt to make a computer that is the opposite of Apple’s exquisitely slick little gadgets, and the world needs both.
Nothing on a Raspberry Pi “just works”. Very little just doesn’t work, either, but all its capabilities require some effort and input from the user. A modern smartphone is a much more powerful computer, as well as being an order of magnitude more expensive, but it is supposed to do only what the maker approves and if it works differently this is normally a sign that it has been taken over by malevolent hackers.
The Pi is designed from the start for benevolent hackers. It can be turned into a media centre, an office computer, a firewall, a weather station, a wildlife camera or a drone controller – with a little programming. That’s the price of a valuable kind of freedom. By contrast, the ideal smartphone has one button, or it may have none at all, while some of the most convenient and powerful computers in our lives, such as those that control our cars, have simply disappeared from view so that most of their users, or dependants, have no idea they exist. The price we pay for convenience is a loss of control and understanding.
The Pi represents the opposite philosophy, where control and understanding grow in step with each other, at the cost of inconvenience. And while most people don’t care to know how the magic works, we are all ultimately reliant on those who do. The Pi was deliberately designed to increase their number by making it easy and cheap for children to play with. In fact, many of the millions sold have gone to adults trying to recapture the enraptured state of childhood play. But some, at least, must have caught the imagination of children who would otherwise have seen nothing and moved on.
The usual justification for interesting children in programming is utilitarian. The future of the economy will be largely digital, so the more children are comfortable with the manipulation of digital reality the better off we (and they) will be. The real success of the Pi can’t be measured like that.
Although it’s designed and built in Britain, the factory is owned by Sony and the chip designers, ARM, by another Japanese company, while the firm that handles the commercial side is now Swiss. But none of this matters very much. What’s really important is that it offers its users the digital equivalent of the slow food movement and similar attempts to impose a human scale on the modern world.
The international digital economy turns ordinary users into sharecroppers, or even into the crop that advertisers harvest. But every Raspberry Pi user has the freedom and dignity of an allotment holder, someone who really owns the products of their labour.