Thursday, 8 March 2012

How the Pi could have been (some of) ours

  (edit: My Pi arrived on 2012-05-14. If you would like to read about my plans for it you can do so here, and my review of it can be found here.)

    So, the Pi will not be ours. At least until April, according to my email from Farnell.
    The Pi? The Raspberry Pi, that is, powerful yet inexpensive single board computer and object of desire. Released to a storm of interest that created a Slashdot-like denial of service to the websites of its two suppliers, its launch left a lot of hopeful would-be buyers disappointed and venting their anger online as the first production run sold out in seconds.
    Now the dust has settled, time for a look at the launch from a customer's perspective.
    I don't think many people involved will disagree with me when I say that the launch of the Raspberry Pi could have gone better. That's not having a go at the Raspberry Pi team, it's simply stating the obvious given hindsight. The Raspberry Pi foundation are a small charitable endeavour and what they have done is amazing, creating their product from nothing and with minimal resources. They are not a huge multinational company with a sales and marketing operation to match so it is unfair to expect them to be able to emulate one. The fact that we'll be able to buy our Pi at all is an incredible achievement, even if we all have to wait a couple of months.
    But it's worth examining the launch from a customer perspective, to quantify what seemed to fail and arrive at some possible solutions. This isn't a "How I would have launched the Raspberry Pi differently from those losers!" piece but a "Gosh, how can I learn from that and what would I do if that happened to my next product launch?" piece.
    So, in the words of an F1 commentator of yore interviewing Johnny Herbert: what went wrong? Here are the answers to that question from my perspective:
  • The launch was massively oversubscribed. A hundred thousand geeks were chasing ten thousand boards. Most of these potential customers were always going to be disappointed.
  • The launch was at a very odd time of day. A hundred thousand geeks had to get out of bed for 6am. Thus not only were the customers disappointed, they were tired and disappointed.
  • The two suppliers - Farnell and RS - completely dropped the ball. In the age of turnkey cloud computing if you know a hundred thousand people are going to come to you all at once for a single page it is not beyond an organisation of their size to direct them to a web presence that can handle that level of traffic. They failed massively, and they will have paid dearly for that failure in lost business while their sites were out of action.
  • The email notification failed. For which the Raspberry Pi people apologised, it seemed their email server wasn't up to the volume required. It's a little unfair to put this here because Twitter and the Raspberry Pi blog seemed to do just as good a job, however it was part of the picture that was missing.
     It's easy to get irate about this catalogue of unfulfilled expectations. It is however worth reminding any reader tempted to cry universal failure that the Raspberry Pi people succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do, which was launch their product and sell their first batch of boards. They were very clear about the size of that first batch beforehand, also they were very clear why they only had that number.
     So, they succeeded in their primary aim, but received an online slamming from disappointed would-be customers. Where did they not succeed, and how might other product launch teams learn from their launch?
  • They didn't manage the expectations of their customers. Sure, we all knew it would be busy, but everyone went in thinking that they might have a chance of snagging a Pi. Perhaps a lottery the week before launch to allocate the right to purchase what boards would be available might have contained those expectations.
  • The time picked for the launch was in my view unwise. Was it to synchronise with US time zones perhaps, or was it at the behest of RS and Farnell? Either way, it had the effect of intensifying the disappointment of the customers whose expectations had been dashed, not only had they failed to score a Pi but they'd had no reward for getting out of bed early. Yes that sounds petty, but customers are fickle and the best way to get them reaching for a credit card rather than a whiny social media post if you've got them out of bed early is not to annoy them with no reward.
  • The email was not farmed out to a server capable of handling the volume of traffic. Yet again this is slightly unfair. Other media did the same job, and their budget is better spent on making more boards than supporting commercial email providers. However when looking at how a commercial product launch could learn from the Pi launch, this is a valid point to consider.
    There is one way in which the episode can be rated as a complete failure though: the server outages from both RS and Farnell. I'm sure the Raspberry Pi team would have done their best to communicate the likely traffic levels to these two suppliers so I can only assume that they did not listen. Or perhaps they did not believe that a small organisation with ten thousand boards to sell could generate that level of interest. Either way the server outage demonstrated the deficiencies of their infrastructure only too well. A right-to-buy lottery would have mitigated the traffic surge, but even without that the suppliers could have set up cloud-hosted Raspberry Pi sales microsites able to handle the traffic. I'm guessing that lost general sales due to the website outages will have focused their minds, and next time it would be different.
    The Raspberry Pi will be an astounding success. Deservedly so, it is an amazing product. And a few whiny geeks on its first day won't change that in the slightest. I guess this piece is looking at the Pi as a case study for more mundane product launches, ones that don't benefit from the goodwill or groundbreaking nature of the Pi. In that light, the twin lessons of managing customer expectations and ensuring the readiness of external suppliers have to be learnt and implemented. Without them, a product lacking the Pi's star qualities risks sinking without trace.

Note: Comments are moderated for this piece. Be civil if you do comment, disjointed fanboy rants will be derided. I'm a Raspberry Pi fanboy who's just as excited about the project as you are.


  1. "Patience et longueur de temps font plus que force ni que rage" (Jean de la Fontaine)

  2. I feel much the same way as you... there are other aspects of the RBPI which are worrisome in the long run. I think Broadcom should be reminded often that it will be a PR nightmare if they ever pull the plug on this effort. I really like how this effort has gone except for the launch. I don't think RBPI should be flailed on ... but I also don't like hearing..."They are a charity so it is okay if they screw up "


  3. Hear, hear! The Raspberry Pi foundation is doing a great job, with limited resources - but the professional distributors could have helped a lot more as I wrote last week (hopefully linking to my own post here is not seen as spammy - certainly wasn't the intention!)

  4. I think you're pretty close to what I'd have said there. Only difference is that rather than a lottery approach (which would have been awkward to organise) I'd have gone with the more traditional approach of launching it initially at a higher price, say £50.

    That would have persuaded some people to wait a little longer for the price to come down, given those who *really* wanted one the chance to pick it up now and brought in a healthy bundle of extra cash too.

    Dropping the price once things were underway would have then been a much easier task than having to keep promising people their chance to buy is "coming soon" and could have been timed to fit with availabilty of supplies.

    Ah well, you live and learn as they say.

  5. I don't think you can entirely blame RS for this, when Raspberry Pi were tweeting this:

    Raspberry Pi ‏ @Raspberry_Pi Reply Retweet Favorite · Open
    If you're only seeing "register an interest" on RS's site, you're on the wrong page.

    Probably caused quite a lot of extra hits....

  6. I hadn't even realized there were people complaining.

    Heck, when I found out there was a lot more interest than previously anticipated, I knew there was no chance of me snagging a board, so I willingly passed the chance by so as to pick it up at a less hectic time. Giving the opportunity to someone more prepared to play with the RPi, y'know?

  7. Hmmm, as a geek, trending the night before via '@HotUKDeals' didn't help!

  8. I would like to add one point regarding the communication between the Raspberry Pi team and the suppliers. Maybe the servers would have taken the load better if the suppliers had actually provided direct links to the Raspberry Pi article, instead of everybody having to do a search first. And then of course, RSComponents was not even taking orders - which would have been a fine approach, if they had a) hosted the Express Interest page somewhere separate from the shop (as suggested in the blog post) and b) actually told the Raspberry Pi team about this. When I saw the "Register your interest" page the first time at a few minutes into the launch, I thought I was in the wrong place. The Raspberry Pi team even confirmed my suspicions via Twitter (see!/Raspberry_Pi/status/174737984413896704 - I'm not blaming this on the Pi team, they just hadn't been given an important piece of information). I guess I wasn't the only one who would have been at a much better position in the waiting queue if it hadn't been for this lack of clear communication.

  9. What I don't get is how all these people going so crazy about the Raspberry Pi don't already have a BeagleBoard.

    I have a June delivery date, and I'll buy ten more when they allow me. But in the mean time I'm cool waiting it out and playing with my BeagleBoard. :-)

  10. Sorry but it is a simplistic root cause analysis, raspi team is doing a good work.

  11. Being from Canada I was up late, rather than getting up early :)testing my luck at snagging a piece of RasPi but with no real expectations of doing so. Have pre-ordered and happy to wait my turn

    Seems to me that the distributors dropped the ball with poor communication and inadequate pre-planning. For example, after fighting my way through the hordes I managed to finally get to the RS site we were told to go to, only to discover that RS doesn't actually sell in Canada or the US. This is done through their affiliate Allied Electronics. Went to that site and NO information about the RasPi. Seems RS may not have communicated very well on that point to either RPF or their own affiliate. Communication was almost as bad with the Farnell/Element 14 issue.

    I think the RPF gave us the info they were given and relied on the distributors to provide full and correct information i.e.Click here to buy from this distributor.

    I am still pleased with all the folks we deal with at the Foundation.

  12. Actually I think you'll find that there was supposed to be a separate page on RS - whether there was or not, I do not know, but if that was what Raspberry Pi was told by RS........

  13. Having supplied my email address to the Raspberry Pi Org site as one of the first 3,000 or so I did expect that those expressions of interest may have been given first option on the first production run. Not following the posts on the forum asking silly questions where the answer was in the main site I was disappointed to find that when I did login again that there had already been a free-for-all scramble at a time I was unable to access a computer.

    It is a great encouragement to the development of core computing skills being made available - pity it was done in a way which failed to exhibit the equally important skill of good manners by not sending an email to those who had already registered.

  14. I'd be interested to know what others think but I would have been quite happy to order and pay in advance if it helped the guys scale their order with the manufacturer. I suspect 10k units was a cash flow issue. Imagine if they had taken per-orders from 100k peeps they would probably have had even more buying power and been able to leverage cheaper component costs and made a bit more cash for the charity. More importantly for the customer they would have made enough for everybody.

  15. They should have handled the distribution themselves, taking a small deposit to secure a unit from the initial batch. This should have been done quietly a few months before launch and then it would have been a trickle of interest, rather than a flood.

    I am not angry with them, as I appreciate who they are as an organisation - but it has to be the worst tech launch ever and the brand could have capitalised better on the swell of interest.

  16. If it helps, it wasn't that the distributors didn't plan for a 100k people, it was the million people who showed up on their door step that threw a wrench in their plans! I'm not sure if they were syncing with a US time zone, but I live in US Central time zone which put the announcement at midnight, so I think it was more an issue of "this is the first moment we're allowed to tell you" Also RS kinda screwed up on the "register interest" thing. All correspondence indicated that it would be open for pre-order, so when RS decided to all the sudden *not* do what they had said, it created a little flack. I think that if Apple or MS were as open as the RPF has been about their launch we'd see how much *every* massively amazing launch has its screw ups and that this really isn't anything unusual.

    @gus, there are plenty of corps that sale products to charities, this is nothing new just because one charity has actually mentions who *one* of their component sellers are.

  17. I don't think they expected so much exposure of the product (if you pardon the pun, given that the product is literally exposed!). The first I heard about it was on the BBC. Not a bad place to get yourself 'advertised'.

    At the end of the day it's a product in a very raw format and has been driven primarily by passionate research rather than a saleable product. I don't think this launch is even an issue to analyse "where it went wrong", personally.

  18. Only idiots would not have predicted the volume of orders were not going to be insane. In fact many many people were telling them it was going to be just that. The fact they ignored it and plundered on speaks poorly of their management decision making ability if you ask me.

    Now they are not allowing any negative viewpoints at all on the forum or comments. That's worse than anything and does not bode well if things are not right once the boards are in the hands of the users.

  19. They had 10K devices to sell to 100K people. They knew this going in. They HAD to have plan for allocating them. They chose to use a plan which rewarded people in a certain set of time zones with fast computers and patience. I'm not sure that that was a wise plan.

    A better plan would have been to ask everybody on the mailing list to send back an email bidding a price for an RPI. They could then have selected those people to receive RPIs at the price they bid. Or at whatever the 10,000th person bid. Or at an average price of $35, some paying more, some paying less.

    They would have had more control over the process, and could have done SOMETHING to make sure that the people most likely to contribute back to RPI would have gotten the RPIs.

    I'm just disappointed by the lack of planning.

  20. Morning all, and thanks for all your comments. A good spread of views, certainly.

    Having had a while to think on the matter I think I agree that future support for Pi boards could be a worry from such a small team. But then again that's why they've outsourced the production to RS & Farnell. I've been dealing with them for over two decades and web server admin aside, they're companies I trust.

    Further, I'm not bothered that I'll have to wait for my Pi. Sure I was disappointed when the sites died and somehow other people seemed still to be able to order them. And I was not too impressed with the "wrong page" Tweet, to which my reaction was "...And the right page is...?". But there were always only 10k boards and ten people chasing every one so the odds were always stacked against me. I can't blame the Raspberry Pi team for that!

    It took me half a day to pre-order my Pi, and the order process was so slow it took me an hour. I think had the ordering and pre-ordering process been offloaded to a cloud-hosted microsite then most of us would have placed our (pre)orders by 06:15 and happily got on with out days. So if any blame is to be handed out I still place it at the feet of RS and Farnell for not anticipating such a rush of traffic.

    I too think Broadcomm would be unwise to jeopardise the project. But I don't think they'd be that stupid, this is not a risk for them and in PR terms it's priceless.

    WRT the Beagleboard, good point. But a Beagleboard is a lot more expensive than a Pi. IIRC about £100 versus £25 for the Pi(incl. P&P). The Beagleboard is a nice piece of kit but too expensive for casual purchase.

    I look forward to the Pi creating a new class of ultra-cheap computers. I'm sure that Chinese manufacturers will be eyeing up this market and we'll see some more commercial Pi competitors with ARM or MIPS processors/ Which can only be a good thing IMHO.

  21. Not a troll, but it may sound like one so warning in advance :)
    The way the launch went left those that had signed up (us geeks), and those other folk who tried to get there hands on a RPI 29/2 (mostly other geeks I suspect) frustrated and a few threw their toys out of the pram.

    However, hundreds of major newsfeeds all over the planet picked up on the story. How many people now know about the RPI that otherwise wouldn't have a clue ? How many kids are pestering their parents to get one ? I want one, but I can wait a couple of months. IMHO in the medium/long term the interest generted by the launch will see more RPIs in the hands of more kids, so win/win.

    1. Can't deny, the news coverage was pute gold.

  22. Lots of people (here and other places) are suggesting that that RS and Farnell should have had better website performance on the launch day so we didnt keep getting time outs when trying to buy one.
    I think this too as I was frustrated trying to buy one, but I dont think it is as simple as people are saying - otherwise I am sure they would have done it

    Their websites were probably developed and written several years ago before 'the cloud' was widespread so they are more likely to have their own servers in a data centre somewhere. Just adding some more web servers from 'the cloud' as demand grows is not really an option as they would need to migrate their website to the use on demand type servers which is major project - unlikely to happen in the time they had to prepare.

    Even if this did happen - most major websites have several webservers all communicating with a single database server. They scale up by adding more webservers. But there is a limit to how far you can scale up - it is limited by the single database server. To get more performance once this limit is reached, you need to increase the hardware/performance on the single database server - again this can be a major project

  23. You're right, it's not as simple as "Adding some servers from the cloud" to an existing site. As you might gather if you look at my profile, a lot of my time is spent working on a very high-profile and high-traffic cloud-hosted site.

    That's why I suggested a cloud-hosted microsite. A special self-contained online shop website with a limited product line - the Pi and its cabling/PSU - and its own, also cloud-hosted, checkout. I am certain Amazon Web Services could easily host such a site with points of presence at crazy bandwidths on all continents, and most half-way-competent web development houses could put such a microsite together without charging silly amounts of money. I think 100k customers all lined up would have been adequate justification for the expense at RS & Farnell if the lost business from the sites going down wasn't enough.

  24. Even with the expected interest causing havoc with Farnell and RS, and I also never expected to be amongst the first 10000 owners.
    But what pisses me off mostly is that in my case Farnell only allowed business customers in my country. Talking to live support, I was told to e-mail sales directly, which I did.
    Next to that I entered the form to express interest... twice, but never have I had even a confirmation mail from them. Just a thanks, we'll get back to you as soon as we can cope would have been the least.

    That pisses me off more than the current suply/demand mismatch, servers grinding to a halt and more waiting time.

    I'm gonna let this go. Maybe check out the pi in the autumn and see if these idiots will have learned to communicate by then.

  25. I'm very same geek as you. You cry because you have to get up so early and you didn't made purchase. What's the trouble? What in case if 1st branch could be last one? There is absolutely nothing to complain, even morning pain without any luck.

    The Foundation did everything very well. They haven't infinity resources or budget. We should thank them for licensing model. Without it nobody could be have on it's own R-Pi except 1st 10 000 ppl.

    Online stores also in here have good job. For them it was unexpected. In here enterprise customers are expected. Now compare how many may be single customers and how many may be enterprise customers at these online stores at once...

    There is not absolutely reason to confuse, cry or whatever to complain. It was very good day with very good information about licensing sell model.

    Dude, think about what may be bad if you will get kid? You will be getting up very often early, you even will not sleep some days... And it is worth crying about on the blog? As for me it's waste of time.

  26. I guess it's not bad, getting 26 comments and only one fanboy :)

    Believe me, I shed no tears. I woulda liked to have a Pi on by doormat on the 1st of March but placed more faith in Santa Claus.

    However, plenty of people got very irate, and from a marketing perspective that's best avoided. So this piece examining that aspect of the launch was about them, not me.