Will There Be Any Pi Left For Us?

Our world has been abuzz with the news that Raspberry Pi are to float on the London Stock Exchange. It seems an obvious move for a successful and ambitious company, and as they seem to be in transition from a maker of small computers into a maker of chips which happen to also go on their small computers, they will no doubt be using the float to generate the required investment to complete that process.

New Silicon Needs Lots Of Cash

An RP1 chip on a Raspberry Pi 5.
The most important product Raspberry Pi have ever made.

When a tech startup with immense goodwill grows in this way, there’s always a worry that it could mark the start of the decline. You might for instance be concerned that a floated Raspberry Pi could bring in financial whiz-kids who let the hobbyist products wither on the vine as they license the brand here and there and perform all sorts of financial trickery in search of shareholder value and not much else. Fortunately we don’t think that this will be the case, and Eben Upton has gone to great lengths to reassure the world that his diminutive computers are safe. That is however not to say that there might be pitfalls ahead from a hobbyist Pi customer perspective, so it’s worth examining what this could mean.

As we remarked last year, the move into silicon is probably the most important part of the Pi strategy for the 2020s. The RP2040 microcontroller was the right chip with the right inventory to do well from the pandemic shortages, and on the SBCs the RP1 all-in-one peripheral gives them independence from a CPU house such as Broadcom. It’s not a difficult prediction that they will proceed further into silicon, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see a future RP chip containing a fully-fledged SoC and GPU. Compared to their many competitors who rely on phone and tablet SoCs, this would give the Pi boards a crucial edge in terms of supply chain, and control over the software.

Raspberry Pi Are A Software Company. Yes, Really.

The Raspbian desktop, circa 2019
Oddly it’s this you’re buying, not the board. Raspbian Project, CC BY-SA 4.0.

We see a future risk in the flotation from a hobbyist perspective though, when it comes to that software. Oddly there is a convincing argument to be made that Raspberry Pi is not a hardware company but a software one. This is not because their product isn’t physical boards, but because it’s not the board which makes a Pi such a safe bet. There are a lot of other companies making Pi clones which are every bit as good as the Pi on paper, but what makes the Pi special is that almost none of them come with the breadth of software support that we see on the boards from Cambridge. If I buy a Pi I have been able to rely on OS updates and new kernels for over ten years now, a record that’s completely unmatched by their competitors except maybe the likes of the BeagleBone. So when I buy a Pi, if I want to use it, I’m really in most cases buying it for Raspberry Pi OS, not the PCB.

That risk comes in Raspberry Pi OS being a freely available open source operating system, which is behind the phenomenal success of the Pi line, but which is not a revenue stream for them in itself. We can’t see Eben Upton and the Pi people doing this, but if we were to imagine a corporate in the grip of hard-nosed bean counters, we could also imagine the prospect of trying to monetise their software crossing their minds. After all, it would hardly be the first time this has happened.

The Hackaday crystal ball is cloudly, but our view is that an expanded Raspberry Pi is more likely to go on to greater things than to make such a faux pas as we’ve described above. We look forward with anticipation to future RP silicon, and we’ll bring you more on the float as it appears. It’s worth remembering though, that the next decade is also likely to produce exciting developments in open source hardware. Will Hackaday readers be so worried about the direction of a commercial board when they can load a RISC-V SoC onto an FPGA without breaking the bank? The next few years are going to be exciting.

70 thoughts on “Will There Be Any Pi Left For Us?

  1. Sure there are plenty of companies which can produce something similar to the Pi but they’re just hanging on the coat tails of the Pi foundation and none of them are innovating, there’s not much that’s offering anything different, nothing I can think of that’s all round better or has anywhere near the support, the Pi community is outstanding.

    Scary times indeed if the commercial masters who’ll leap onto the flotation, they might actually sink it after they’ve had their profit.

    1. I don’t think we need to be that worried about it in the near future, at least for a while the same folks will be steering the ship. And with the Foundation and the LTD company being different entities anyway with so much of what benefits the community and makes the Pi the SBC standard being part of the foundation not the company anyway…

      Not that I like the idea, but more funding might well lead to more and better Pi for everyone, so far to early to worry the sky if falling yet.

      1. I suppose the question is, how much of the LTD will be owned by the Foundation after the IPO? I’d be less concerned if the Foundation owns a healthy majority of the LTD, and I think they’d be foolish if they didn’t.

      2. “I don’t think we need to be that worried about it in the near future, at least for a while the same folks will be steering the ship.”

        Which in business could be an extremely short time indeed. As short as one day after the sale if history is any guide.

        1. Well Eben has implied he isn’t going anywhere, and unless you are selling off a large majority stake the shareholders can’t either at all or easily force you out. So while I agree history shows it could happen I don’t think in this case it will.

      3. I certainly hope that’s the case, I just wonder how closely tied and interdependent or how rigidly enforced those boundaries can be after the floatation.

        Time will tell I guess.

    2. > “and none of them are innovating”

      I would hard say that Pine (pine64.org) isn’t innovating. Yes they have similar products to RPI, but also laptops, smartwatches, soldering irons, tablets, phones, etc..

    3. > but they’re just hanging on the coat tails of the Pi foundation and none of them are innovating

      This is 100% false. Go look at the specs of the so called competition of say 5 years ago and you’ll see that many of them already implemented what the Raspberry Pi discovered just recently.
      I understand that the Raspberry Pi has many “fanboys” here, but please don’t spread misinformation.
      Also, the Raspberry Pi has never been the 1st cheap and publicly available Linux board (search for “foxboard lx832”) and calling other products clones is totally false, aside being disrespectful.

      1. Yes, I’m familiar with it, my friend was one of the core SW developers for the VideoCore.
        Fairly good information on VC4 is available in VideoCore IV 3D Architecture Reference Guide, but I admit it’s not entirely complete. But we are able to make working PoC for non-ES GL and Vulkan on it. Later VC engines are different enough that we’re still stuck with binary blobs.

        Working with Broadcom in the past, it used to require NDAs just to initialize the clocks and pads for serial and I2C. So it’s been a dramatic shift to see.

        If I were starting an open platform based on ARM SoCs some 10+ years ago. I would have went to TI or Intel/Marvell. They were much more forthcoming with docs back in the day.

    1. With the RPI-1 chip, they have really opened up to some great possibilities as they are no longer bound to a certain CPU/SOC. They now a ‘license’ so to speak to do what ever they want instead of building around a certain vendors chip(s) (and the limitations that come with).

      People complain about the ‘closed’ source boot code, but … so what? I can still load my own OS or RT kernel. Just look at what Ultibo did for example. Built a whole development environment for the board. To me, it doesn’t ‘limit’ your creativity on how you may use the board(s).

      As to the being traded on the stock exchange…. I think it could be good. More resources then can be leveraged for more projects. Could be a win win. Time will tell!

      As for me, I have and am really enjoying working with all variety of RPI projects from the RPI-5 to the Pico. Will keep me busy for years finding uses for these little boards.

        1. Of course, that’s why we all invest in funds/stocks/bonds for later years… We expect a ‘good’ return on our investments :) . The upside, is the company must innovate and bring new things to the table that people and companies will want to ‘really’ consume….

          1. In theory yes.

            Having watched the last few decades of the tech industry it’s pretty hard to believe that continued innovating is the typical big company strategy for upping those stock values rather than innovating once then stifling all related innovation so as to keep the lead.

            But I do have my 401k full of stocks just like anyone else who doesn’t want to work all the way into the grave.

    2. It’s not too impressive, Eben and a few others there have been employed by Broadcom for a while prior to starting Raspberry Pi, they already have access to all of the NDA’d docs etc.

  2. The raspi foundation doesn’t seem to serve the maker community first anymore.

    They send boards to industrial manufacturers first. All of the messaging and strategy around the Pi itself has positioned it more a small desktop computer replacement than something to embed into projects. A shining example is the raspi 400. It won’t be long before the raspi foundation is selling prebuilt computers, case and all, instead of bare boards. There’s also the continual push towards higher and higher performance, power consumption (I need a fan now!?), and price. They’re also pushing for “big” computer features like PCI express. These days if you want a “traditional” Pi board your best bet is the pi zero and it’s IO that is even more limited than the very first board they released.

    The raspi foundation is going “upscale.” It’s a very similar pattern to what makerbot did when they started chasing the “professional” market with a more polished product and a bigger price tag.

    Expect investor pressure to accelerate raspi’s movement in this direction, just like shipping thousands of boards to industrial partners changed which customers they valued. The raspi foundation might be a nonprofit, but they sure do love money.

    1. You don’t need a fan, just just need a fan to get better performance same as it always has been (at least since overclocking became documented), and at least in theory almost every Pi model ever made is still produced and available – certainly a quite look at my usually electronics stockists show many of the older models – even batches of 100 at time!
      So all the Pi4 and 5 mean is there is a Pi for nearly every budget and performance bracket now – having the latest model cost a bit more but be so potent when the old models are still available and cheap doesn’t harm makers at all – it gives you choice.

    2. I think the trend to high performance is partly just for the makers using them as desktops and cyber decks.

      They’re adding plenty of stuff that’s obviously useless for most industrial stuff (PCIe? Really?), and not adding things that would be extremely useful(Many Pi clones have onboard UPS functionality).

      It doesn’t help that certain high profile applications like HA have given up on optimizing for the Pi, the community has just accepted that you need a real SSD to run it well.

      I wish they’d pursue the “Cheap commodity” angle a bit more and just stick with Pi3 performance, with better power consumption and more onboard extras, and maybe invest in some sponsorships to fix all the software that can’t run on microSD.

    3. 1. Even since their very beginning, being able to run a “real” graphical desktop, not just a command line, has been their thing. Then making a fully assembled laptop is really the culmination of that original vision.

      2. Lots of the changes we’ve seen seem to be driven by end users (mostly makers), but, different projects need different things. Some people want minimal and cheap (which is the pi zero) and some people want a desktop replacement (8gb version).

    4. > The raspi foundation doesn’t seem to serve the maker community first anymore.

      It never did, and it was never intended to. That the maker community has benefitted has been a nice side effect, but dear god have people in it acted in the most entitled fashion.

      https://www.raspberrypi.org/about/ is quite explicit about their mission. Notice how absolutely nowhere does it say anything about providing rich adults with the cheapest computing power possible.

      1. That you expect people to be rich, just because they are adults, means you have quite a disconnect from reality. And no, just because someone does an electronic project, doesn’t mean they are rich, not by a long shot. Even people in Africa have phones. Doesn’t mean they in general have a great standard of living…

        1. “ Even people in Africa have phones. Doesn’t mean they in general have a great standard of living…”

          In that case it most likely means their priorities are wildly out of whack!

        2. If I assumed all adults are rich, then I wouldn’t have explicitly said “rich adults”, now would I? People who have enough time and entitlement to be bitching on the internet about how they couldn’t get a PC for beer money are very unlikely to be the poor ones.

    5. As OP (basically) said, it’s tough to make money with a niche market like “the maker community” and expenses in producing silicon are high. They tried to throw some fuel on the fire by catering to embedded industrial applications, which was smart and probably kept them affordable and available to tinkerers a lot longer. Now they’re going public. I’m not super optimistic, but then again I am a cynical old crank.

      I don’t blame them, I certainly could not muster the talent and heroic effort needed to develop something like that for such a tiny customer base. Wish it was a larger demographic as well, but that’s a whole different can of worms.

  3. “The raspi foundation might be a nonprofit, but they sure do love money.” … And what is the problem with that? If you see a way to grow out of a non-profit into a real business that is going to make more money and more products, that seems like a good thing. Everyone wins and some probably will retire rich due to its success. I have no problem with that. Way it should, and does work, for those that are willing to risk all to start a business/non-profit that may or may not work out. As hobbyists we just hope that at least part of the business will continue to be ‘attuned’ to our hobby needs/wants. Oh,and BTW, when big companies buy a product, who have some leverage, they want it ‘reliable’ or don’t buy. This reliability will then trickle down to us folks that buys in small quantities. We win too :) . My two cents.

    1. I don’t think you quite get what being a non-profit means. You treat it like some intermediary step. Something to grow out of at first opportunity, but that is not true.

      Being a nonprofit is a voluntary declaration that your organization serves a specific purpose and will use every bit of profit in order to further that purpose. Be it by reinvesting it into the organization itself, advancing the services provided or reducing product profit margins for adoption. The main reason is to show you are acting in good faith and thus gain positive PR along with some massive taxation exemptions. It is generally the go to for charities and organizations seeking to accomplish a specific goal and/or grow in a organic manner

      The downsides being that you don’t get to pocket the profits yourself as an owner and that all growth must be achieved organically via re-investment of profits & donations. Though the taxation exemptions help a lot with the latter.

      On how it will turn out… i am skeptical. Venture capital tends to be a short-term gains with long-term consequences kind of thing.

      1. Nonprofits are (with extremely few exceptions) money laundering schemes and con artistry. They are entirely about making money and producing sinecures for your cousins and friends. Trust me, I’ve worked for a lot of them.

  4. Generally. Once you give Venture Capital a seat at the table. Inevitably it will get more egregious and aggressive in its demands. For from that moment onwards just being Profitable is and never will be enough again. For all that matters is that your value keeps growing at any and all costs as some twisted form of debt repayment from having gone public. until eventually you hit that ceiling and things collapse in a not so good manner.

    For now RPi will probably be fine for years to come, perhaps even a decade or two. but I’m going to assume they are on borrowed time nonetheless…

      1. Stockholders are like VCs except there are way more of them (increase the “design by committee” variable) and they have no industry experience, just a vague demand to increase the value of their asset.

  5. Peak Pi was years ago, when the products fulfilled their companies mission statement. Now it seems that large resellers get 90% of the stock and inflate prices. I love the Pi but I fear the 4 is the last I will ever buy at non scalpers prices. Also, after the Pi5 I may as well buy a PC since spec and price wise they are reaching parity.

    1. I agree with your comment to the extent that the RP4 may be the last I buy.
      I see no reason to pay scalper prices for a 4 or a 5, I would rather go without.

      1. I am confused. Every RPI I’ve bought has been the ‘normal’ price. I will not pay scalper prices either. I now have two RPI-5s and I popped into the pi shop the last few days, and the 8GBs have been available. See they are sold out again tonight though. They have all the RPI-4s, 3s and Zeros available though.

        1. Sometimes I need one for work or for an installation at an event which is happening soon, so I need to go through a scalper. I stock up on them when they are in stock because I know I will be using them, but I always end up needing one more in a pinch.

    1. This is stated like it is law, when in reality it was the opinion of like one single big finance guy several decades ago. That said, because everyone believes it is basically law, it basically is.

    1. “Abandoned” isn’t a fair term. Would you like to try to produce something like that product on education money? It’s hard to produce it on industry money. They really did try and succeed for a good while.

  6. They provide a platform, as many SoC vendors do. The software is the necessary evil, well required for a long time now. allwinner, mavell … they all have sexy chips. But getting a stable and well tested OS on top, that is real value.

    We’ll see if they remember all the little people that did the testing. :)

  7. Apparently “flotation” of a stock means selling unrestricted shares on the stock exchange, so “a floated Raspberry Pi” doesn’t seem to make sense- to my thinking, it should be perhaps “a floated Raspberry Pi Foundation” or “a floated Raspberry Pi LTD” (though it might make sense to more people if it was just referred to as an IPO or public stock sale).

    1. This is actually a difference between American and British English grammar, where companies are plural because they are a collective noun of many people. Both are correct.

    2. Mass nouns. Confusing territory. See how insistent they are that the abbreviation of “mathematics” is “maths” not “math.” Fishes, not fish. I wonder how they abbreviate economics. Econs? In England, if you are getting an MBA, do you go to a class called “Econs 101?”

  8. Aaaah! Here it comes. The cycle of boom and bust. Chasing after the cash, and not the quality. DEBIT IS EVIL. But it is a necessary evil, so it must be carefully managed. Too much, and the company sets its self up for failure. Too little, and the company doesn’t grow very fast. It is better to have too little debit than too much debit.

    1. Finance 101: Two ways to get more money to grow your company — debt and equity. You can either borrow the money, or sell ownership in the company. In this sense, they’re like opposites.

      Pi has chosen to sell stock rather than borrow money. This means that they’re opening themselves up to more public oversight and possibly external control, but they also don’t have big loans to repay.

      1. They have to do this because interest rates are up and ZIRPs are evaporating. Otherwise they would keep their creative control and borrow the cash, because it wouldn’t be a scary interest-trap death sentence.

        Basically the economy is crap again, just like it was in 2008-2016. Funny how it works out that way. All the newspapers insist it is fine, though. Just like in 2008.

  9. It all comes down to who they listen to. When they were operating as a benevolent company targeting educational and hobbiest markets that’s who they listened to for ideas/complaints/etc. Large scale industrial customers got into it for cost savings, and this move means they will get a much bigger voice within the organization. Hobbiests and educational users will take a back seat to the needs of industry, and eventually you’ll be hard pressed to get even an email answered unless your a big customer.

  10. What Raspberry Pi really capitalizes on is Arms strengths and weaknesses. The strength is the performance per watt advantage of Arm, which it has an advantage over cheap Intel N100 systems. The other Arm single board manufactures can’t have people just download Raspberry Pi OS. This where Pi capitalizes on the weakness of Arm not having a standardized platform for operating systems to boot up on. Raspberry Pi’s value is having a great OS on an ARM platform with a huge customer base.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.