A little while back we were fortunate to sit down and have a chat with Eben Upton, founder and former trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation who was giving a talk at a workshop in our own back yard here in Taipei. We quizzed him on the role of China’s Shenzhen in the global maker scene, among other things.
If you are not familiar with the Raspberry Pi, it’s basically a credit-card sized motherboard fitted with a low power 700MHz Broadcom processor, 512MB of RAM, a few USB 2.0 ports, video and audio outputs plus a GPIO (General Purpose IO) controller for low level peripherals. The board was released in 2012 for an amazingly low $25 price tag, and was aimed squarely at the education segment, makers and people who simply wanted to learn about programming and create cool stuff. The success of the Raspberry Pi can quantified with the astonishing fact that the Raspberry Pi Foundation has now shipped over 3 million units – way, way ahead of any expectations that founder Eben Upton had when he kicked it all off back in 2006.
Eben was in town to talk about the new and updated version of the Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi Model B+ which features several small changes that enthusiasts had been asking for (additional USB ports, a smaller microSD card slot and improved GPIO support). Eben was also talking up a new Raspberry Pi Compute Module that is aimed at consumer electronics designers – basically cramming the computing resources of the Pi on a smaller board (that looks exactly the same size as laptop RAM module) without any IO, leaving developers of mid-volume embedded devices more flexibility in terms of their specific IO needs.
However, we managed to Eben alone for a few minutes to quiz him specifically on how he sees the maker scene developing in Shenzhen China, if indeed the Silicon Valley model really works outside of California and the advantages that Shenzhen can bring to makers in general:
Mobile Geeks: You mentioned that you were talking to some players in Shenzhen and Taiwan about making the Raspberry Pi? I’ve been to Haccelerator and also Shenzhen quite a bit, but the issue with the Haccelerator guys is that I feel like they are replicating a Silicon Valley… Shenzhen should be its own thing, it shouldn’t be anything else and they are doing some amazing stuff.
Eben Upton: “Replicating Silicon Valley is like a disease. So many places now are trying to it. New York is trying to do, London is trying to do it. One of the good things about Cambridge, and I get asked by journalists in the UK – why are you guys not in London or Silicon Valley? One of the nice things about Cambridge is that it’s one of the few places that is a bona-fide tech cluster that isn’t trying to be Silicon Valley.”
I don’t any of those places can succeed…. one of things that people don’t acknowledge about why Silicon Valley has succeeded, which is in the large part defense spending. The way you make a Silicon Valley is you take area, and spend a trillion dollars on weapons research, yeah? And then loads of smart people go there, and then even after the cold war ends and suddenly you have this 50 mile long corridor full of super smart technology people who then start their own businesses. You don’t do that opening lots of coffee shops and an accelerator.
Mobile Geeks: Politically there’s a lot going on in Taiwan that isn’t really lend towards a great eco-system of innovation, and when you go to Huaqiangbei (Shenzhen technology market)…
Eben: “I went there the other day and its incredible! I went there for keyboards and LCD panels and couldn’t find any, but there was this guy selling USB connectors, USB sockets. I know what USB sockets cost… several pence. So I asked, how much for these? He said 0.1RMB (less than two cents US), so said what volume is that? He said that’s for one. So asked, what if I need 20,000 of these, and he said let’s go into a room for negotiation.”
Mobile Geeks: It’s about access on the ground. There’s nowhere else like that.
Eben: “One of the big problems with large Western components companies is that they have such big overheads that they have to qualify (sales) opportunities. One of the reasons that the Raspberry Pi has been successful is that we have taken high-end software and silicon that you can’t normally only buy a million of, because you have got to get through an opportunity certification program… it could cost a hundred thousand dollars for them to just to think about selling you the chip. They have go to know if it will be worth it.”
“There’s all this wonderful silicon which is completely fenced off from your average maker. So that’s what Raspberry Pi has done, is dragging together all that harm into one basket, get that through opportunity certification, largely because I worked for the silicon company in question. Now we are big enough, that if took Raspberry Pi now and took it to a silicon company saying we want to buy your silicon they would say yes. The problem is nobody would believe it until it happens.”
“That’s the lovely thing about Shenzhen. There’s no opportunity qualification, they don’t care. They have no overheads, they have one guy on the store, their own factory and they make stuff. For Makers, people who maybe want to make a hundred or a thousand that’s awesome.”
Eben continued to talk about how the Raspberry Pi can be a great starting point to develop an idea, but at some stage you need to find the right parts and equipment to make the idea come to life. Shenzhen is the place to fulfill the latter requirements.
Eben: “It’s Raspberry Pi… plus other bits and getting all the other bits can still a prohibitive barrier. We get you over one barrier, then Shenzhen gets you over the other, and suddenly you’ve got a product, you’ve got a business.”