Saturday, March 3, 2012

Radio silence and gouging (A follow-up to Black Piday)

It seems that the forums are back up, and have been for 12 hours or so.  So far, there's only 2 people on the forums who seem to have got confirmed orders for Pis from the first batch.  Given that there were upwards of 12K people registered on the forum, and most of them were probably frantically trying to get orders in from 06:01 on the 1st, we can safely say that demand was "underestimated".

Oddly, there seems to be very little spleen being vented towards the Foundation, but some not inconsiderable anger directed at Farnell and RS, mainly over their incompetent and inconsistent handling of ordering and preordering.  This anger is, I believe, misplaced - there's far more wrong with what RS (to a lesser extent) and Farnell are doing than being simply incompetent.

I'll say it now.  I feel that handing over control to Farnell and RS was a massive mistake, and it may cost the foundation much of the goodwill they have accumulated even whilst they were missing their hoped-for delivery dates.

RS are seemingly not acknowledging anything.  Nobody is reporting any response at all from them.  "Register interest" and - nothing, nada, que chi.

Farnell are, logistically speaking, doing better - they (if you can find the link to order in your country) are accepting preorders.  However, they are:

  • Giving wildly optimistic delivery dates on order, which are then being modified in email
  • Advertising and confirming orders at one price, and then subsequently modifying the price (which, as far as I understand it, but IANAL, is contrary to the Sale of Goods Act, at least in the UK)
  • Selling the Pi at inflated prices.  This is the worst, as the price point was the one thing the Foundation have stuck to, and was a major selling point. The Model B (which is all that's on "sale" at the moment) was supposed to be 35 USD plus locally applicable taxes.  In France (and, I believe, the rest of Europe), Farnell are quoting 33.07 EUR before tax, which comes to 42.65 USD.  That's a 21% markup.  The UK gets an advertised 24.65 GBP, or 39.03 USD, but a reportedly subsequently modified price of 26.65 GBP, or 42.20 USD.  Again, a >20% markup.
I cannot understand why the Foundation are allowing this.  RS are advertising at 21.60 GBP, which is, at least, at the 35 USD price point.

Farnell are destroying the Foundation's year-long commitment to a given price point.  The Foundation should pull their licence NOW.

It has been pointed out that, in their defence, Farnell are merely rolling the shipping cost into the purchase price and shipping for free, but that's actually fairly dishonest - it's a "reverse eBay" (i.e. the reverse of the situation where an article is listed with a low price and then the rest is made up by gouging the shipping).  If you were (able) to order more Pis than one, you effectively pay for single item shipping on each and every one (or, put simply, overpay your shipping cost massively).

Black Piday

So, I didn't get a Raspberry Pi.  I'm not feeling overly bitter about it, as I wasn't actually expecting to, if nothing else because I was already at work before the 6AM GMT deadline. What I am mildly miffed about is that I can't currently do anything other than "express an interest in buying one" (or, in supplier-speak, "become a mailing list asset") from the major suppliers.  I've had an interest since May last year.

As I type this, the Raspberry Pi site is still showing a static page.  There's no official news about what happened, who got one, who didn't, what the details of the deal with Farnell and RS are, apart from Twitter.  The unofficial news (i.e. the stuff in print) is almost all wrong in fundamental details.

I wouldn't want to have been one of the inhabitants of #1 Fruity Loop recently. It was becoming increasingly evident that there was no way 10,000 Pis were going to suffice.  With every hour, new "news sites" were picking up on the Pi as a "$25 computer that does XBMC". None of them were picking up on the actual goal of the Pi itself, or mentioning the limitations of the Pi as an XBMC machine, or even any of the actual hardware features of the Pi beyond "it does XBMC". The wave upon wave of new users descending on the Pi forums and asking if they can install Windows on the Pi bore witness to this. What had started as a dream was rapidly becoming a monster. It was totally out of control, and there was no way the foundation would ever be able to meet the demand.  Hence, I guess, the throwing up of hands and handing control of the hardware delivery side of things to a pair of corporate rapists[1]

When people start realising what the limitations of the Pi as an XBMC machine is, the nerd rage will be spectacular.  We probably have a week or so before they start being delivered to homes around the globe, and the "this thing's a fucking pile of shit" threads on the already overloaded forums start sprouting up by the thousand.

The foundation themselves are largely to blame for this turn of events, as recent news has all been about multimedia and XBMC, and nothing to do with education at all.  Indeed, the "About Us" page on the Raspberry Pi site has been changed from a short and sweet statement of the goals of the foundation into a bunch of word salad.  From being about teaching programming, it's suddenly become
We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children.
So, when 6AM GMT ran around, Farnell, RS and Raspberry went down simultaneously. Not taken down by wave upon wave of pent up demand for educational computers, but by scalpers and people from These are not people who are going to do educational projects with the board, they are going to stick them to the back of the telly with blu-tac. the foundation wanted "the community" to take the board and supplied software, run with it, and create interesting projects.  Installing XBMC is no more interesting in terms of computer science than editing a document in Microsoft Word, the kind of crap that's being taught in ICT, the kind of thing the Raspberry Pi was suposed to fix.

None of the people I know who are planning educational projects managed to get one from the first batch. Only one of them managed to get a preorder rather than "expressing an interest".

There are probably less than a hundred people on the forums who are planning interesting stuff.  putting aside 1% of the first batch "for them", even if it was done behind the scenes, would have done far more for the foundation's erstwhile goals than selling a million Pis to people who want to make Mame machines and set top boxes.

So, like I said, I'm not bitter.  But I am fucking angry.  The emphasis has gone from producing something important, i.e. a machine that helps in teaching kids (and adults) how to actually control the hardware they own, on to simply producing another gadget.  That emphasis has been changing slowly since around December.  The sale itself was a total fucking mess, and, it appears, fucked up by both the foundation (setting a solid date and time for server meltdown, days in advance, and thus further engorging the until-then self-sustaining hype machine, was never gonna be a good idea), and RS/Farnell, by all accounts, don't appear to have been even close to ready (from denying the existence of the Pi through to stating that they will only be available to resellers).

I remain totally committed to the originally stated goals of the foundation.  The ones that don't appear on the site any more.  I truly believe the Pi could change the nature of computing in a way that no other computer has ever done, that it could make an understanding of computer science part of basic education.  Indeed, even if the foundation had never managed to get a single board out of the door, it has highlighted fundamental issues in education today, raised questions, and shown that, with a bit of will, something can be done.

But all that is being lost, being driven into obscurity by a botched sale of millions of cheap, credit card sized computers running XBMC.


I hope the foundation people at least get to pay off their personal loans, but I assume Farnell and RS are taking a substantial cut of the already slim margins.

[1] Arguably, the handing over of sales to people like RS and Farnell should have happened around December, when the beta boards landed.  At that point, the hype was containable. But that's with hindsight, and I guess at that point the foundation guys and girls still wanted to (and believe they could) keep control, which is understandable.