Rise of the DIY tech movement: Raspberry Pi sells its 10 millionth unit

As Apple has grown in popularity, a counter-movement has quietly emerged. Raspberry Pi's $35 computers are changing the way we think about technology.

Most of the tech media is understandably focused on Apple following the unveiling of the new iPhone 7 on Wednesday. But with much less fanfare, on Thursday, a British tech charity marked a sales milestone for do-it-yourself computing. 

Raspberry Pi announced the sale of its 10 millionth unit Thursday. In a sense, Raspberry Pi is the yin to Apple's sleek, expensive, closed-source yang – and another indicator of a global do-it-yourself tech movement that finds expression in everything from Maker workshops to rising STEM enrollments.  

The organization, which began in 2012 as an effort to get more applicants for Cambridge University’s computer science program, sells pocket-sized computers for $35 or less. It aims to get low-cost computers into the hands of people worldwide, making it easy for them to create tools that meet their needs.

“The primary goal was to build a low cost computer that every child could own, and one where programming was the natural thing to do with it,” co-founder Robert Mullins explained to CNN.

To keep costs down, the Raspberry Pi is little more than a chip – all external hardware must be added separately. This gives users the flexibility to add hardware, and write code, that suits their purposes. 

What do they choose to do? The organization’s website offers examples as varied as detecting solar flares, teaching in Ecuador, and working prosthetic knees. It’s not just serious problems that can be tackled, either. One father told his son that he could go to a party – if he made the request on the Pi, using Python code.

The creators of Raspberry Pi themselves never expected their computer to become so popular. Co-founder Eben Mullins wrote that selling 10 million units exceeded their original goals “by three orders of magnitude.” 

Raspberry Pi’s open-source model encourages creativity, while its low price tag gives more students the computer access they need. It is a cost-effective means of sustaining interest in programming among school students.

Whether they can claim credit or not, student enrollment in STEM fields is on the rise, according to research by Jerry A. Jacobs at the University of Pennsylvania and Linda J. Sax of the University of California at Los Angeles, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Using data collected by UCLA, the professors write that from 1997 to 2005, the proportion of first years planning to enrol in STEM fields declined, hitting a low in 2005 of 20.7 per cent. After modest gains in 2006 and 2007, real increases started to show up in 2008. The percentage of first years planning to major in STEM increased from 21.1 per cent in 2007 to 28.2 per cent in 2011, just as the recession was prompting many students and families to focus on the job potential of various fields of study. That represents a 48 per cent increase in just a few years.

The do-it-yourself computing movement empowers users to become active participants in “our increasingly digital world.” The Raspberry Pi is one of several efforts that taps into an emerging trend: whether they are “knitters, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, or even masters of the new 3-D printing process,” as The Christian Science Monitor’s Noelle Swan describes, young people increasingly want to help produce the products they use. Over half of Millennials want to start a business, and others are interested in partnering with existing companies.

For policymakers, the “maker movement” – as it has become known – is a sign of progress. President Obama, among others, has heralded it as a way to reignite American manufacturing and create jobs within the United States in the coming decades.

Raspberry Pi may not be the next Apple. But it does appear to be a vehicle for influencing how we interact with technology.

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