What is a Single Board Computer or SBC – Single Board Computers or SBC’s in short have been here for a while, evolving a great deal in the last decade. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Single Board Computers, “A single-board computer (SBC) is a complete computer built on a single circuit board, with microprocessor(s), memory, input/output (I/O) and other features required of a functional computer. Single-board computers are commonly made as demonstration or development systems, for educational systems, or for use as embedded computer controllers. Many types of home computers or portable computers integrate all their functions onto a single printed circuit board.
Unlike a desktop personal computer, single board computers often do not rely on expansion slots for peripheral functions or expansion. Single board computers have been built using a wide range of microprocessors. Simple designs, such as those built by computer hobbyists, often use static RAM and low-cost 32- or 64-bit processors like ARM. Other types, such as blade servers, would perform similar to a server computer, only in a more compact format. A computer-on-module is a type of single-board computer made to plug into a carrier board, baseboard, or backplane for system expansion. “
The Arduino foundation democratized making and creating in many ways through the launch of the opensource Arduino board. The Arduino foundation board was designed to make it easy for makers, creators, innovators to bring their ideas, projects to fruition. The Arduino platform provided a microcontroller based board which had a number of I/O pins that allowed one to experiment with real world sensors, lights, switches, etc. kick starting the maker movement. Another platform which one has to cover when referring to the birth of Single Board Computer (as we know it today) is the Beagleboard. The Beagleboard democratized making in other ways, the Beagleboard was much more powerful platform, came packed with loads of features, allowed for an operating system or OS to be installed on the board which empowered makers, creators, innovators to deliver much more complicated projects using the Beagleboard. Then finally in 2012 the Raspberry Pi Foundation (then just a couple of individuals wanting to further democratize making, creating, innovating) released the Raspberry Pi SBC, the rest as you know is history. If you are keen to learn more about the birth and evolution of the Raspberry Pi Single Board Computer then head over to – A History of Raspberry Pi Single Board Computers at Hackster.io.
What are some of the Single Board Computer options – Today the Raspberry Pi foundation along with their numerous offerings is the largest Single Board Computer manufacturer out there, both in terms of SBC units shipped out worldwide and also in terms of the size of the maker, educational market it owns, serves. Over the years a number of other Single Board Computer manufacturer’s have jumped into the game looking at the success of the Raspberry Pi. Unfortunately no single manufacturer has been able to upend the Raspberry Pi and steal it’s market or make a sizeable dent in the commercial, maker or academic market for the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has enjoyed a near monopoly in terms of volumes of Single Board Computers shipped and market size ownership across the commercial, maker and educational / academic markets.
There are a number of other alternatives to the Raspberry Pi, the list has been growing steadily these last few years. Check out some of the more popular ones listed below. The list provided below is not meant to be holistic.
- Orange Pi
- Rock Pi
- Asus Tinkerboard
- Banana Pi
The whole is larger than sum of the parts – So let’s spend sometime and look at what makes the Raspberry Pi stand out among all the other Single Board Computer offerings out there. As i have said here and at many other times to others in multiple conversations i have had with them, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. You will see what i mean once we get to the end of this section.
- Affordable, easily accessible – The Raspberry Pi is one of the most affordable Single Board Computers out there. Ebon Upton and the Raspberry Pi team designed a Single Board Computer that would allow makers, tinkerers get hands on again and experience the world of physical computing. The early Raspberry Pi Single Board Computers were positioned at a 35$ price point initially. While that initial price point does not exist anymore for the main stream Raspberry Pi board, the Raspberry Pi foundation does offer other lower end boards e.g. Raspberry Pi Zero, Pi Pico, etc. available at similar or lower price points. The cheapest mainstream Raspberry Pi Single Board Computer now retails for ~45$.
- Price Performance ratio that makes it a worthwhile investment – It is a known fact that the Raspberry Pi Single Board Computer isn’t the most powerful board out there and doesn’t even offer the most amount of peripherals or bells and whistles as compared to the competition out there. However the Raspberry Pi has always managed to offer reasonable value with an acceptable Price Performance ratio. The Pi will not outshine other boards in terms of technical specifications, etc. but will definitely offer good value for money.
- Community of makers, tinkerers, academia – One of the biggest reasons most makers, tinkerers, creators, innovators love the Raspberry Pi is simply due to the fact that it has one of the largest communities around it. A community is a broad term suggesting existence of many different open forums, user groups, clubs, bulletin boards, chat servers, discord servers, mailing lists, etc. where users can lean about Raspberry Pi, share recipes, request assistance, share learning and knowledge gained working on the Raspberry Pi.
- Addressing different market segments – Have a bunch of products that address different market segments is critical. The Raspberry Pi Foundation does this really well through the mainstream Pi boards (runs the full fledged Linux operating system) which address the maker segment, the smaller industrial form factor Raspberry Pi variants (CM4, etc.) for the commercial organizations, the Pico / Pico W micro-controller based boards for educational and commercial use including the Pi Zero (runs a scaled down version of the Linux operating system) which has many uses across the maker community. It’s critical to have an offering that addresses various user segments and different use cases across those user segments.
- Easily accessible educational material – Great hardware is the start but to deliver good outcomes the Raspberry Pi Foundation looks beyond just manufacturing hardware and instead focuses on helping further the cause of STEM, STEM education world over through their support for the two largest STEM organizations i.e. Coderdojo and Code Club. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has put large amounts of money, effort into building some of the best STEM tutorials covering Scratch, making/creating with the Raspberry Pi, Programming in Python, Web Programming, 3D Printing, electronics using the Raspberry Pi, robotics using the Raspberry Pi, etc. Through CoderDojo and CodeClub the Raspberry Pi Foundation continue to impact STEM uptake around the world.
- Ecosystem of partners, vendors – The Raspberry Pi Foundation realized early on that it wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the demand for customized peripherals, add-on boards, learning kits, commercial grade solutions, etc. So it allowed and supported a vendor ecosystem that does just that offering both the commercial, maker, academic market access to solutions that worked best for them. Thanks to vendors you can purchase range of custom electronics, robotics kits, get custom add-on boards for your niche applications and even obtain commercial support for commercial Raspberry Pi implementations.
- Range and roadmap of products to cater to the commercial, maker, educational, academic market – It’s important to have good products that cater to different relevant market segments. However it’s also important to grow the product range, evolve one’s products and create new, relevant offerings for existing and new markets (Commercial, Maker, etc.). The Pi foundation has steadily grown their offerings and now have one of the biggest Single Board Computer offerings out there.
When you look at each of the 8 dimensions above you will realize that individually they are good to have but collectively they make the Raspberry Pi an unbeatable offering. Each of these 8 dimensions are like business model choices that a business makes, one chooses to do certain things and decides not to do others which gives their business the edge in the market over others, until someone else comes up with a better way of executing the similar or slightly different business model and steals their customers and glory.
Where other SBC platforms fall short – Over the years the Single Board Computer market has evolved to give us a number of very powerful Single Board Computers other than the Raspberry Pi. Looking at the list of dimensions we’ve covered above most current Single Board Computers (other than the Raspberry Pi) manufacturer seem to get 1, 2 or at most 3 of the 8 dimensions right. Single Board Computer manufacturers other than the Raspberry Pi seem to focus mostly on delivering a top notch Single Board Computers that excel on the specifications, come packed with peripherals and provide all the relevant interfaces i.e. camera, display, sound, storage, etc. However most of these Single Board Computer manufacturers lack basic user documentation, technical documentation is mostly non-existent other than a few certificates claiming CE compliance.
Another shocking fact with most of the Single Board Computers is the lack of good software support for the different hardware peripherals, GPIO, etc. Libraries that we take for granted on the Raspberry Pi either deliver substandard outcomes or in most cases don’t exist at all. A lot of the new Single Board Computer manufacturers have started to realize the importance of communities and have allowed creation of communities around their newer Single Board Platforms. There seems to be an unfortunate expectation that the community will pick up the slack in terms of lack of basic documentation, lack of basic libraries, mainstream Linux kernel support, advanced peripheral integration for the mainstream kernel, etc. It doesn’t take too long to work out that most of these boards have a lot of potential but will never really be a challenger to the Raspberry Pi unless they realize that it’s not the hardware specifications or how powerful their SoC / CPU is but rather how stable their boards are, how good their software and library support is, how strong their vendor ecosystem is, how supportive the community around their platform is, etc.
The long term view, investment required to build strengths across the 8 dimensions has so far been mostly missing across a lot of the other Single Board Computer manufacturers and we are looking to see if 2023 will change any of that. While i am hopeful, it will take a lot to change behaviors for existing Single Board Computer manufacturers across most of the 8 dimensions listed above. There’s definitely a massive momentum and push from makers, tinkerers who are seeking alternatives to the Raspberry Pi, willing to live with a slightly sub-optimal product with the understanding that they are able to work with the designers, manufacturers to help shape a better quality next generation solution. Time will tell if any of the Single Board Computer manufacturers out of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) are able to pull up their socks and deliver on the non technical dimensions listed above.
Is 2023 the year where alternative SBC platforms will give the Pi a run for its $ – These last couple of years have been hard for everyone, the pandemic, then the global recession, inflation combined with climate change, etc. Mankind has been witness to a number of life changing events, with little sign of things getting better anytime soon. So it’s time to brace ourselves for the ride, who know how much more time we have on this planet. The shocks of these events have sent ripples through the global supply chain for the semiconductor industry. The Raspberry Pi Foundation among many other chip manufacturers have been majorly impacted as a result have been unable to meet the the increased demand of Single Board Computers world over. So consider yourself blessed if you can find any Raspberry Pi boards. These boards have been unavailable these last 2.5 years with the Pi foundation focusing primarily on commercial customers.
The question is are the other Single Board Computer manufacturers at a point where they can grab market share and give the Raspberry Pi Foundation a run for their money. We have been working hard to assess the Single Board Computer market and pull together a list of all the major alternative (non Raspberry Pi) Single Board Computer offerings out there that would be of interest to makers, tinkerers, creators and innovators. We are hoping to mature that model over the coming months, identify suitable performance metrics for each of these Single Board Computers and then use these metrics to rank suitability of these Single Board Computer options for different use cases.
With the Raspberry Pi Foundation still continuing to focus on commercial customers, with scalpers charging 3x-4x the prices for a simple Raspberry Pi Single Board Computer and a number of very powerful Single Board Computer offerings hitting the market the time the time is indeed ripe for change.
Conclusion – 2023 is going to start of very similar to 2021, 2022 with regards to lack of availability of the Raspberry Pi. This is an opportunity for other Single Board Computer manufacturers to take on the Raspberry Pi, develop capabilities across the relevant dimensions and build a solid business model that gives the Raspberry Pi Foundation a run for their money. Yes, we like the work that the Raspberry Pi Foundation does but it’s also high time that we support the development of a larger Single Board Computer ecosystem so we have options when people like Ebon Upton decide that focusing on commercial customers is more important than focusing on makers, tinkerers, innovators….the core of the maker movement who are the reason why the Pi Foundation exists today. Ignore the maker movement at your own peril Ebon………….