There are many articles about the specifications and features of the various Raspberry Pi models, and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Few of these articles explain the meteoric success of technology that, at first glance, looks like it might have come from the 1980s. The Raspberry Pi is a single board computer, it’s inexpensive, and in 2017, its total sales have reached 15 million units. Imitators are rushing alternative single board computers to the market such as the Banana Pi, Intel Galileo Gen 2, etc. This article will discuss why the Raspberry Pi has sold so many units, why there seems to be a lot of alternatives coming to market, and what it all means for the future of home computing.
The Raspberry Pi 1 Model B was released in February 2012 to very little fanfare. The credit card-sized single board computer featured a Broadcom system on a chip with an integrated ARM-compatible CPU and an on-chip graphics processing unit. The maker of the Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is a UK-based charity whose goal is to provide low cost, high-performance computers that people use to learn, solve problems and have fun. When the foundation launched the Model B and, shortly later, the bare bones Model A, they charged only $35 and $25 respectively for each model.
The project was geared toward education, and many of the early adopters were hobbyists interested in promoting and educating youth and the disadvantaged about computing. The cheap Raspberry Pi offered an opportunity to provide a peek inside what had increasingly become a “black box,” so to speak. Now students could see the processors and connections and better understand how computers and laptops worked. In addition, because the operating system was open source, a community of enthusiasts emerged to write programs specifically designed for the Raspberry Pi. This allowed students to also understand the fundamentals of programming.
Although a wonderful sentiment, education and bridging the digital divide were not the reasons the Raspberry Pi took off, nor is it why so many imitators are appearing today. Early on, when the Raspberry Pi started being sold, some quickly realized that it would be ideal for streaming television and movies. Relatively quickly, the open source community was producing or modifying streaming programs to be run on the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi had a media processor similar to a Roku, a testament to the Foundation's desire to build high quality into the Raspberry Pis. The consequence was that many young technophiles interested in cord-cutting invested in a Raspberry Pi.
Cord-cutters looking to stream video certainly were not the audience the Raspberry Pi Foundation had envisioned as the driving force behind its product. However, this unanticipated movement did have very positive consequences. A robust open source community emerged, and the widespread familiarity with the Raspberry Pi combined with all those programmers led users to extend its applications to many tasks that at the time were being handled inefficiently by power-hungry desktops and laptops. Soon the Raspberry-Pi open-source community was producing all sorts of programs for the Raspberry Pi.
As the Raspberry 2 and 3 models came out, technical improvements combined with buzz expanded its market to less technical people looking for a particular solution. Tasks such as controlling 3D printers, LED light shows and so forth were ideal for the single board computer; usually, open source software was already written for these tasks. Soon, as the educators the foundation originally had hoped, its adopters caught wind of the technology and started integrating it into classrooms and universities. As sales grew and Raspberry Pi went mainstream, companies realized that there existed a market beyond hobbyists for cheap, single board solutions.
Alternatives emerged that focused on particular applications or needs. Some alternatives, such as the BeagleBone, are designed for taking instructions and creating motion as is needed with laser marking or 3D printing. Although marketed as an alternative — since it is a single board computer as well — the BeagleBone can just as easily be used to compliment a Raspberry Pi, acting as the controller for a process while receiving instructions from a Raspberry Pi. Other alternatives sought to exploit the price savings of using the cheaper Allwinner systems on a chip such as Banana Pi or Orange Pi. Generally these alternatives are Chinese and are compatible with many operating systems and interact with the Raspberry Pi.
Specialization for increasingly niche single board computers makes sense, and cheaper imitators are, as they say, the highest form of flattery. Raspberry Pi exposed a market demand overlooked up until now. There is a need for simple computers that can act as controllers or perform low power tasks and that have the open source community supporting them. Thanks to the emerging competition, this market is likely to continue to grow, and prices for single board computers are likely to drop even as their utility increases. The Raspberry Pi foundation succeeded in its mission to expand computing resources to the underprivileged and in the process created a booming single board computing industry.