Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton: Open Source Lessons from Wayland

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In less than two years the Raspberry Pi has sold more than 1 million units and become widely used and adored among DIY hackers and embedded professionals alike. It began in 2006 as a modest idea to provide a low-cost educational computer for students to tinker with. Now the $25 Linux-based single-board computer is the basis for all kinds of gadgets from near-space cameras, to open source spy boxes, to the PiGate, a full-scale Stargate replica.

Eben Upton Raspberry PiDuring that time the board’s creators have also gotten a fast education on open source software development and the process of collaboration, said Raspberry Pi Foundation Executive Director Eben Upton. He’ll share some of those valuable lessons during his keynote talk at LinuxCon and CloudOpen North America in New Orleans, Sept. 16-18, where he’s also planning a new demonstration of the Pi’s prowess.

Here, Upton talks about some of the open source projects the Pi Foundation is involved in; their choice of the Wayland display manager; their focus on media performance; their efforts to expand computer science education and literacy; and his favorite Pi projects.

Can you give us a preview of your LinuxCon keynote?

I’m not a natural open source guy. No one would mistake me for being a classic open source fan. I find it interesting to the extent it’s useful to me. So I’ve come to RasperryPi as a bit of a novice, with not so much experience in running a project that’s deeply intertwined with the open source community. I’ve made a lot of mistakes so I’ll talk about what I’ve learned.

I thought we could ship a platform that basically works and the open source community will take care of the rest. There are some areas they’ll do a great job, particularly things that have a lot of eyes on a problem and are able to attract the attention of a particular expert. The other things aren’t so great, particularly around desktop acceleration. We’ve had to go out and pay contractors who are able to move that stuff forward for us. It’s been a learning process of finding what those categories are -- the things for the community and those for the foundation.

How is the Pi Foundation involved in open source projects?

We’ve been supporting a number of open source projects. We make a little money every time we sell a Pi and have a little pot of money we spend on things deemed important to the mission of the foundation.

There are some bits of Linux infrastructure not well optimized for our platform so there’s been a low level of work paying people to write fast implementations of audio codings, for example.

Higher level stuff we’ve been doing are things like Wayland, accelerated web browsing. Things that are tying us into the way the desktop experience is evolving under Linux.

What are you working on right now?

We’re pushing on support for Wayland. It’s the future of Linux desktop graphics. It’s a clean-break architecture. It’s obviously somewhat controversial, there’s a feeling that there’s a risk people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in moving on from X11.

One big challenge we’ve experienced often with a lot of open source projects like web browsers and X11 is that although the code is open, it’s hard for somebody to come from a standing start to make a good contribution. And for people with a particular functionality to add it themselves, there’s a steep learning curve.

One challenge we had repeatedly with trying to get X11 acceleration was we couldn’t even understand what we had to do. Wayland is a little easier and somewhat cleaner. Some people say it’s cleaner because it’s less functional, but it was more approachable for us. Even with Wayland we had some friends at Collabera, to work with them to educate us on what needed to be done and then to source the really talented guys who could make much faster programs than we would have made ourselves.

Why are you focusing on the media aspects of the Pi?

It’s both the place where our ARM core shows its limitations and the place of the functionality on the chip we have the most amount of accelerators to bring to bear on the problem. The ARM core we’re using shows its age, particularly when you’re dealing with very high screen resolutions.

It’s been about 7 years since you first conceived of the RPi as a low-cost board for educational purposes. How far has that movement come in broadening computer science education?

On the hobbyist and engineering side it’s come a very long way. We’ve gotten to the point where the Pi exists and it’s available and there’s a community you can go to and ask for help. You can rely on it being available this year and next and it’s something you can build off of and feel safe.

On the education side there’s an enormous amount that remains to be done and it’s a case of grinding on with that. Making sure there’s good support material, printed material that will allow a teacher who’s not perfectly confident about computer programming to deliver an enjoyable and exciting experience for the kids.

Is the Foundation also working on curriculum development?

Yes. The foundation does a vast amount of engineering, more than we were expecting, but the aim is to recycle that into accomplishing our educational goals. It’s necessary but not sufficient to supply the hardware.

It seems the Pi came out of a trend toward abstraction, in which the computer user/ programmer is taken farther away from the hardware toward easier languages and programs. Do you wish we could go back to the days of the Commodore?

I don’t wish we could go back to the days of the Commodore. That’s futile, right? You have to remember it’s really fantastic that we’ve got computers that are a lot more user friendly that the Commodore. We shouldn’t throw out our usability babies with the bathwater. We have to try to strike a middle ground. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Pi, which is more useable as a general purpose computer.

What’s your favorite Pi project to recommend to someone with some already serious hacking skills?

I like the photography ones at the moment. You can get a 5 megapixel camera and a Linux box for $50 to do everything from wildlife phtogoraphy to high-altitude ballooning. I got an email from a kid the other day who set up the Pi to send an email every time someone rings his doorbell and now he’s adding a camera to it so it will snap a picture. People like the interactivity you get with the camera. In terms of what people do with the Pi on its own, the automation stuff is fun, or using the Pi as a Tor anonymizing router.

Anything else you’d like to share with the Linux community and LinuxCon attendees?

We are dependent on engineers to manufacture the demo I’m going to give and we’ve only got 7 weeks. (laughing) No seriously, I’m looking forward to meeting people. I’m a neophyte in this community.

The LinuxCon and CloudOpen North America conferences will be held Sept. 16-18, 2013, in New Orleans. Register now!