For Raspberry Pi fans, today’s product launch is the Big One. It would be easy to let your eyes glaze over the techy specifications (and let’s face it, “Raspberry Pi 4 Model B” doesn’t sound that sexy to the uninitiated). But this, essentially, is the moment that the device completes its transformation from cute coding toy for kids to being a genuine replacement for the PC.
“This is basically what we've been working towards for the entire history of Raspberry Pi: a credible alternative to a "regular" PC but at a tenth the cost,” says Eben Upton, founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and chief executive of the Foundation’s engineering arm.
Upton created the Raspberry Pi in 2008 while at Cambridge University, originally as an inexpensive tool to teach children how to code.
Over the last 11 years, however, more than 25m units have been sold, to a wide variety of users, including computer enthusiasts and experimenters (the Los Alamos National Labs team for example hooked up 750 Pis to create a cheap supercomputer), but also increasingly business users.
Around half of Raspberry Pis sold last year — some 3m units — went to factories and businesses such as hotels. Often they are being put to use for monitoring equipment: Sony, for example, has installed them to record the temperature or vibration of bits of equipment.
Organisations like the Danish healthcare service and Merton Council in the UK are also buying Raspberry Pis for use as simple computers in their offices. With much of the complex computing moved to the cloud, all that is needed on an employee desk is a basic machine. The company currently sells about 6m Raspberry Pis a year, giving is just over 2% of the 260m unit global PC market but Upton is keen to grow this share.
“We think of ourselves as a PC company,” Eben Upton told Sifted over brunch earlier this year. But it is only now, he says, that the device can really compete with a PC.
Previous models of the Raspberry Pi have not been quite able to give the same performance as a desktop computer: videos can be choppy, having multiple tabs open can be problematic and anything beyond basic web searching difficult.
The new model — the 4 B — now does many of the things users would expect from a desktop computer. It can decode 4K video, drive two screens at the same time, and has about three times the processing power of the previous model, the Pi 3.
"We can now address a much bigger fraction of the PC market. There will still be some people, like hard-core gamers, for whom this will not be an acceptable PC. But for the things most people want to do, editing documents, searching the web, watching a few videos, this will be perfectly fine," says Upton.
Being able to run two screens at the same time, Upton says, was particularly crucial for winning more of the business market.
The starting price remains $35 (for the model with 1GB of memory), part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s commitment to keeping the devices highly accessible.
Some users do grumble that the $35 price is a bit misleading. That just buys you the circuit board. You need to spend a lot more on cables, monitors, keyboard, and software before you have a usable computer.
Even so, you can piece together a workable computer for under $100, a price low enough to make the Raspberry Pi — which is manufactured in the UK — hard for Asian rivals to undercut. It has become a rare European company to stay afloat in the cut-throat computer hardware market of the last decade. The business had revenues of £25.5m and pre-tax profits of £9.7m in 2017, the last year for which there are accounts available.
There is constant pressure to keep ahead, however. A flood of (mainly Asian) competitors have recently poured into the sub-$100 computer market, including Shenzen-based Sinovoip which makes the Banana Pi (priced at around $61), Shenzen-based Radxa, which makes the Rock Pi (prices starting from $39) and the BBC Microbit ($37), managed by the not-for-profit Microbit Education Foundation.
Upton says none of these keep him awake at night, adding that devices like the Microbit are addressing a very different category. These are not competitors in the PC sector he wants to move into. Nevertheless the pressures of price and performance are unlikely to let up any time soon.