Interview with Ben Nuttall of the Raspberry Pi Foundation

As part of the Digital Maker Collective upcoming residency at Tate Exchange Tate Modern Arts Work of the Future 6th to 11th March 2018, we aim to reach out, connect and learn about contemporary industry and sector innovators. The interview below by Sabrina Faramarzi with Ben Nuttall of the Raspberry Pi Foundation took place on 19th May​ 2017 at the Digital Maker Collective, Tate Exchange Unconference 'Digital Making in Arts Curriculum, Practice and Career'.

Industry insights, help introduce & inform members of the Digital Maker Collective and the public to industry and sector innovators and will support the integration and development of industry and sector perspectives in a number of collective, industry & public tech incubator platforms on the 5th floor of Tate Modern in March 2018. 

Each accelerator aims to explore various questions like 'Should Technology be Socially Responsible?' ideas and solutions to problems and / or attempt to intervene in the deceleration of a problem by collectively engaging in digital making, co-creation and open innovation. If you would like to support industry & sector collaborations with the Digital Maker Collective please contact Chris Follows email: c.follows@arts.ac.uk 

So let’s start with talking about the history of Raspberry Pi, how it came about and explain to me the business model.

The of Raspberry Pi first came around when a group of people (the founders of the foundation) who were mostly academics, came together after they saw a problem in the education system that the numbers of people applying to university at Cambridge to study computer science were dropping. Not only that but the quality and the level of skill that applicants had when applying was also decreasing, and they wanted to fix the problem by trying to provide something that would allow potential students to upskill a bit before they started the course.

They started to look at a way to build a device that they could give applicants so they could learn some skills before they started. Then they decided to take it further back and actually move it down the chain, they wanted to fix it earlier by looking at improving the experience for children in education rather than just university applicants. This was because they realised that the people who were applying to university at that time (this was around about 2006/7), they were people who had grown up with a personal computer in their house, a Windows PC or something like that, but not a device that they generally had to learn how to use or had to learn how to program. But the founders, in their generation, there were not many people who had the opportunity to use a computer and those that did had a steep learning curve. You had to learn to program it to use it, even if you only wanted to play games on it. You had to do a certain amount of interaction in terms of commands and actually learning how the computer worked to get into it to be able to play a game. They realised that for the new generation, computers had got better and user interfaces had got better.

The new generation didn’t have to learn how a computer worked to be able to use it and even though they used computers regularly they weren’t learning the skills which would make them good potential computer science students. The founders wanted to give them something much more bare bones than a desktop pc or a laptop that they could tinker with, hack with, build with - something cheap enough they could break and easily replace. And they took it right back to early education rather than just the university applicants. And so this group of founders weren’t really thinking about it in terms of being a product they were thinking about it in terms of more of a movement, so they set up a foundation with the aim of trying to get this computer made which would then be rolled out to what they thought would be a few thousand  people at the university applicant level, and they started running a blog saying like hey, we’ve created the Raspberry Pi foundation and we’re going to make the Raspberry Pi computer - it’s going to look like this and it’s gonna have this.

Image above: Ben Nuttall of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, at the Digital Maker Collective, Tate Exchange Unconference 'Digital Making in Arts Curriculum, Practice and Career' 19th May​ 2017.

There was a video on BBC news that Rory Cellan-Jones got an interview with one of the founders David Braben and he showed what the Raspberry Pi looked like, and at the time it was like a little USB stick. He explained this device to be a cheap computer that you could plug into a monitor and learn to program. It was a very early prototype of what they were thinking of at the time and news of that got around and the video was shared a lot and was very well received. Lots of people were interested and not just university applicants or students or teachers but the general public.

The tech community were saying “a really cheap computer that you can hack with? That sounds really interesting!" They originally announced it as being a £15 computer that was like a usb stick and they were trying to make it as cheap and possible and something that was around the price of a textbook. So rather than a university saying in order to do this course you need a £1500 laptop, what’s reasonable to a ask of a student to buy is a textbook - like "can you buy a £25 textbook for this course?" So they were aiming for something around that kind of price range rather than a laptop price range. They were talking about this £15 computer and lots of people were saying well it’s only got 1 usb port if you want to use a mouse and a keyboard you have to buy a USB hub then split it out, that’ll cost me another £10 so why not make it £25 and add it in there. So they changed the design based on some comments and they thought there’s no point trying to make it that cheap if people need the extras and so it ended up being this £25 credit card sized computer and one of the things they did was expose they GPIO pins which is the general purpose input output pins which allow you to programme real world electronics and connect to things in the physical world as well as it being just a desktop computer.

So they basically had this prototype and there were tens of them around that they passed on to universities and various other people in the community, and they asked them what can you do with this, can you build things for it, can you build with it, and there was a big following at this point (about late 2011) on their blog and every update about ‘we’re going to make the first 10 thousand of these and put them for sale’ there were people were really interested in it.

They had this great ethos and at the time and they were really well respected as this organisation that was on grassroots level who wanted to make this cheap computer and try to really make a difference. I was one of the ones that was following it at the time and I thought this is an amazing thing that they’re doing, they’re trying to make a cheap computer that you can hack with, this is gonna be huge. Then when it came out and they announced it’s available for sale (that was the beginning of 2012), they said it’s available for sale now but we’re not going to be the ones that are selling it, we’ve found 2 partners who are going to be buying all the parts, manufacturing them, and then doing the distribution and the selling. The founders put enough money together to buy the first 10 thousand and they went for sale and they said any more orders that come in after this the partners called RS Component and Element 14, they will take the orders and they will manufacture as many as are required. Both shops opened for sale and on the first day both websites completely crashed with the amount of traffic that came to them.

I was there and they said 6 o’clock in the morning we’re going to make a big announcement and everyone knew that it must be time because they said it was gonna be the end of 2011 and it was the end of February 2012 and it was on the leap year day and we always remember that the 29th February was the first day the Raspberry Pi came out. I was there got up at 6 o'clock and these websites were just not loading. They obviously just didn’t kind of take seriously the idea that this was gonna be a a big thing, nobody really knew how big it was going to be and how many people actually wanted to put £25 up to have one of these devices. So there was a few metrics they used to estimate this.

They put out an operating system image like an image that you would download that you could write to an SD card that you can insert into a Raspberry Pi and it would boot up and they put out the image and they said the image is available now and it was like a month before the Raspberry Pi came out and something stupid like half a million people downloaded it, but it was useless. People have downloaded this thing that they can’t physically do anything with, even people who were intending on buying one might not have bothered downloading it until they needed it but all these people showed some interest and it was some metric and they took it to the manufacturers and said look, there’s a big market for this we’ve got all these people on the blog, we’ve got all this web traffic, we've got all these people giving suggestions like I would buy one, I would buy 10, I would buy 100, I would do this I would do that, I’m going to make add on accessories for it, and all these things, and they said there’s definitely some potential here, it’s too much for us as a small foundation with no money beyond the first 10 thousand that we paid for to actually do this. So they went to the manufacturers and the manufacturers said we will take on the manufacturing and put up the money upfront for however many orders there are, and we will pay, so the business model the way they set it up which was one of the most innovative things about the Raspberry Pi.

It works so the Raspberry Pi foundation gets a royalty for every one sold, so we sell like a licence to the 2 partners, they put the money up front, buy all the components so if they wanna make 100,000 they buy all the components upfront, pay for the manufacturing and they can sell them and we actually have our fixed price that they have to sell them for and of that they have to pay the foundation a small proportion and then there’s a bit of margin there to make money for themselves and these partners can also make money on the accessories they sell with the Raspberry Pi. So if they sell a keyboard and an SD card they can earn more margins from the add ons and the accessories. They can also sell to resellers so smaller shops can buy from these 2 partners and sell on and again there’s another layer of profitization there.

But every time a Raspberry Pi is made and sold the Raspberry Pi foundation earns a royalty. Now that, in the early days, I don’t know how much money we’re talking about here but, on the first day they took a 100 thousand orders before they stopped actually deciding to take orders. So they said we’re going to have to stop taking orders, we don’t know how long it will take to fulfill a 100 thousand orders, we have 10 thousand Raspberry Pi’s sitting in a warehouse ready to go, we can distribute those to the first 10 thousand but what about the other 90,000? So they were all being made in China and there’s a big lead time, I was one of the people, I wasn’t one of the first 10 thousand but I was one of the first 100,000 so I got in relatively early. I got in within a couple of hours of opening and I got an email saying your order will be dispatched within 2 months and then another email your order will be dispatched within 3 months and I’m thinking like this is crazy, I’ve put in an order for this thing and the date is slipping, lots of people were in that position we didn’t know how long it was going to be.

In actual reality it was about maybe, it was probably 2 or 3 months before I got mine and within about 6 months they finally got to a point where you could order one and get it the next day, but it took a long time and the manufacturing process was slow and they had to increase optimisation and keep up with demand. But you could only really buy from those 2 distributors, and they had wholesale websites. It’s not like buying from Amazon it’s like you’re buying components for your factory, like a business to business kind of website. So that’s how, with the royalties of the first 100,000 that, I think they sold their first million in the first year. Then about a year and a half into launching they hit 2 million. so by this point the foundation is getting substantial income from this and started to hire people. So they hired 3 engineers, before that it was just the founders. The trustees (the founders), were just a group of people who got together to do this thing, they were just trustees of the foundation when it set up and then within a year or so they set up Raspberry Pi trading Ltd which is a for-profit company owned by the foundation and because all the money was coming in they needed to set up a company so the foundation wasn’t just operating like a company that earned money. So now there’s a company that aims to make profit, but rather than having shareholders it’s owned by the foundation so it feeds money into the foundation.

The way a lot charities work like Oxfam have shops and you know, different aspects of retail and income that fund their charitable work. We operate the same way but we have an engineering team who work for the trading company who design the Raspberry Pi computers which are then sold and they also do the software support and that sort of thing. So when they started Raspberry Pi trading they started hiring quite early on so they had their first batch of engineers and admin staff and somebody to do marketing and that kind of thing and so by the end of 2013 which is when I was hired there were 4 of us in the Foundation and we had a couple more in early 2014 and that was about a year and a half after. And because the foundation now had a reliable source of income it could actually hire people full time to do education stuff. Even then in the early days it was quite light what we did, we didn’t run teacher training programmes or competitions or anything like that, we were just this tiny group of people who offered support to the community.

Do you have any more formal setups with universities now?

Not really. Most of what we do is something that will suit as many people as possible so rather than working with one university like the beginning with the University of Cambridge helping them improve their computer science course. We put out materials and support and things like that for the benefit of as many people as possible so that any university can take that and use it, and if there’s innovation within say Cardiff University, if there’s somebody doing great stuff there on a course with robotics then they can put their course online and it’ll be on our blog the next day. “There’s this amazing lecturer at Cardiff University doing this and doing that and it’s an open resource for anybody else to use."

How would you describe in a nutshell the overall ethos of Raspberry Pi?

So there’s a few different aspects to what I would consider our ethos. We want to democratise computing so we make computers as cheap and possible, we make it accessible and we encourage people to tinker and hack and dive into the bare metal, understanding the basics and what’s going on underneath. A computer isn’t just a black box, it’s a circuit board with components and its an operating system and its a stack and its all of those bits and there’s so much to learn but you’ve gotta start somewhere and we want people to unravel the layers and start learning about programming, start learning about operating systems, start learning about electronics, and dig deeper and deeper and start learning to understand the computer they’re using. But essentially to be a creator rather than a consumer. But we also have other aspects to our ethos: we are very disruptive in the industry.

Development boards like the Raspberry Pi existed before the Raspberry Pi but they would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds for about the same spec as a Raspberry Pi and they were made for engineers who wanted to have a development board to build stuff on or to run servers and things like that, they had that bespoke use, but what we did was we opened it up and said essentially the Raspberry Pi is just a mobile phone chip like the one in your pocket and it runs an operating system and all those things, but your phone is locked down to what the manufacturer wants you to be able to do and that’s exactly what people want a mobile phone for. So what we did was we broke it out, put it on a board gave you the HDMI port so you can plug it into your TV at home, gave you the USB ports so you can plug in a mouse and keyboard, gave you an SD card slot so you can run your own version of an operating system on there, and anyone can write their own and we gave you this open platform that allows you to tinker and develop with. This is technology that has always existed. In 2012 the Raspberry Pi was not even high spec, it felt like a slow sluggish computer but you didn’t have expectations at the time, and what we did was we just opened that platform and made it accessible to anybody and said that this is a platform that you can develop on. We just opened it up and encouraged all sorts of different uses of it.

We’ve seen people use the Raspberry Pi in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. We’re very disruptive in the education world, in industry, so actually it might be that you could be the biggest company in the world and have the means to buy any sort of servers or computer systems or anything, and you might find that they’re just using Raspberry Pi’s behind TVs to display their office updates or whatever, it might be that that’s the best, no matter how much money you have or what you can afford it might be that this is just the best solution. Also in things like our magazine The MagPi that we put out, you know people used to put out computer magazines and they’d have a CD or a DVD or something like that or even a floppy disk if you go further back, on the front of it with some code on it or some free software or something like that and you’d give away that. What we did was we just gave away a computer on the front of a magazine. We make computers so cheap, we made a $5 Raspberry Pi that was cheap enough that you put it on the front of a magazine and that’s how we announced that there was a new model. We went from saying we’re going to make a $25 computer which at the time seemed ridiculous to taking it down to $5.

If you could be critical, what do you think are the weaknesses of Raspberry Pi or the areas that could be improved?

We’ve certainly made some headway in normalisation, for certain people in certain industries and certain backgrounds seeing a Raspberry Pi in a certain place is quite normal but I don’t think it’s….it’s not as normal as we’d like it to be. Something like a parent seeing their child playing minecraft is perfectly normal, it’s just the most normal thing in the world playing a game like that, and the parent wouldn’t necessarily encourage that but it’s a perfectly normal thing to expect a child to be doing to spend a lot of time playing in minecraft. Or if the child went to the scouts or brownies or something like that it’s quite normal to expect a child to go to scouts or brownies, or go to a youth club or watch football or something like that. But doing digital making at home or hacking technology, because the parents are often so far removed from that unless they work in technology or have a particular understanding for it they wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer support. They wouldn’t necessarily know is it safe for me to give my child this, like electronically. Is it gonna blow up? Are they gonna hurt themselves? Are they gonna be safe if they’re attached to the internet with this device or can I monitor them, privacy concerns all sorts of things like that. I think that’s something that we’re quite far away from resolving really. I mean kids have the chance to attend community events like Raspberry Jams and code clubs and be in a safe environment where they can learn about those things, perhaps their parents will be there but perhaps not, perhaps they’ll be under adult supervision, there’s lots of mentors, people volunteer in the community that are able to offer help as well and if parents can encourage kids, if they’re not competent themselves or feel comfortable themselves they can seek advice from those people or take them to those events and put them in a safe environment where they can learn and try and even learn themselves.

I run events like this and I see parents, there are tech parents who are, you know software engineers people like that who take their kids along to try and encourage them to get involved and there are parents who have no idea what it’s all about and they just take them along and put them in front of a Raspberry Pi and give them a worksheet and just sort of stand back and go yep, this is something I want them to do but I don’t know what it is and they’re the sort of parents who’ll give the kid the iPad and say “oh can you get my email for me cause I don’t know how it works” and the kid will go “yeah of course I know how to do that” so I think that’s a big thing to try and overcome.

How do you see Raspberry Pi developing in the future?

I would like to see things like digital making with technology like Raspberry Pi becoming more normal and seeing it not necessarily more widely adopted, that’s not what I mean, but more broadly adopted. Not just more people but across a wider spectrum of people around the world. So not just middle class families in certain areas of England but I wanna see it in rural areas of the UK, disadvantaged children, adults upskilling or reskilling or unskilled adults actually learning skills or becoming more digitally competent or even just becoming digitally literate learning through resources and programs and things. Also more use of things in the home, so actually solving problems that are relevant to people...like if you give a child a programming task like can you sort this list of fruit you know, it’s like a pointless academic task but if they’re actually learning through solving problems that actually matter to them. So maybe it is to do with minecraft...maybe instead of playing minecraft they’re actually programming it to do something which solves problems for them by building things into minecraft which use APIs to communicate and things like that, not just things like exercises they’ve been given by someone like me but to give somebody the skills to realise the potential and realise what they can do to solve a problem that matters to them. Whether it’s a social problem like they want to help with food banks or something like that, like I’ve been volunteering at this foodbank and it’ll be really efficient if we could set up an app where people could say we’ve just run this event and we’ve got food left over can I run this over to my nearest foodbank.

There’s a child that’s like "I want to solve this problem and I know that you can use web apps and you can use this technology and this protocol and this API, I can build a prototype that can do this". I wanna see kids try and solve real problems or even if it’s just something at home like I wanna build a football scoring system online on my wall, or I wanna see the BBC news sports feed so when my team scores I wanna see it on this display. Whatever it is I just want people to go on that basic learning curve, learn a bit of Scratch, learn a bit of Python, learn to use APIs and start to develop their skills and get to a point where they’re empowered by the technology and what they can do with it to solve their own problems. People think Raspberry Pi, Code Club and initiatives like that are all about getting kids to train to get a job as a software engineer. That's not what it's about. Sure, some of them will go into the industry, but I want us to have an impact on kids who end up being doctors, builders, drivers, politicians, anything. If people in all walks of life had a decent understanding of technology in the future we'll be in a really good place.

Ben Nuttall: Raspberry Pi Foundation - Digital Making for Everyone. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is working to put the power of digital making in the hands of people all over the world, and is well known for its series of small, cheap single board computers. SEE SLIDES from 19th May​ 2017 at the Digital Maker Collective, Tate Exchange Unconference 'Digital Making in Arts Curriculum, Practice and Career'.

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