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Raspberry Pi eyes Internet of Things expansion with customised, mass-produced boards

The company behind the popular microcomputer has started offering custom, mass-produced versions to any company willing to pay for them.

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The cheap Raspberry Pi microcomputer is popular with DIY gadget makers.

Luke Westaway/CNET

LONDON -- Raspberry Pi is branching out, with a new ploy to offer businesses custom-made, mass-produced versions of its popular microcomputer.

The Raspberry Pi microcomputer -- which was designed as a cheap educational tool to get kids interested in coding -- stole the hearts of many geeks when it first arrived back in 2012, offering a low-cost, bare-bones computer module that could be hacked into all manner of fun DIY gadgets.

Seven million sales later, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is launching a global customisation service for companies that want versions of its powerful, tiny computer to embed in their own products.

Embedded Pi

Raspberry Pi inventor Eben Upton, speaking at the launch today, says he envisions small businesses embracing customised versions of the microcomputer, to put to work in gadgets such as media players or home automation hubs that communicate with all the other gadgets in your house.

While the option to mass-order custom Pi boards is unlikely to be of interest to huge companies such as Samsung or Microsoft, the Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes that Kickstarter-grade organisations looking for a computer to power their Internet of Things gadgetry will be tempted to put an order in. The customisation process could see connector ports added or removed, to make the Pi more suitable for bespoke purposes.

The customisation service launches today, courtesy of long-time Pi partner Element 14, which has handled distribution of the little gadget since its launch. Element 14 has recently acquired two engineering firms, AVID and Embest, on which it will be leaning to handle the mechanical engineering and manufacture of customised Pi boards.

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Not one for the hobbyists

While the maker movement has clutched the Raspberry Pi to its collective bosom, individual tinkerers won't benefit from the customisation ploy. Element 14's Richard Curtin explained that bigger organisations hoping to build technologies using Raspberry Pi at scale will be the first priority.

"There's an enormous amount of distributed creativity in the world. It's one of the things that's made Raspberry Pi successful," Eben Upton said, describing the kind of small businesses he thinks will be interested in custom Pis.

"People have ideas for hobbyist things they want to do, people have ideas for products they want to build," he said. "This -- along with the mainline Raspberry Pi and the compute module -- they're ways of providing people with the ability to do these interesting things without having to get to a scale where they can justify building 500,000 or 1 million of something."