The $35 full-functioning Raspberry Pi computer went on sale last night and the high traffic crashed two distributors’ websites.

About a month ago, the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that it would begin manufacturing a $35 computer system that would be able to run Linux. The hardware would include a 700MHz ARM11 CPU and 256MB of RAM, among other things. Last night, the system became available for customers to order on the partner manufacturer’s website. The overwhelming demand for the device caused both manufacturers’ websites to crash last night.

In 2009, the Raspberry Pi Foundation began in the UK. The goal of embarking on this $35 computer project was to help children learn how to program. The developers came out with two model types (referenced as A and B). B is the higher-end configuration that includes beefier hardware specs as well as an ethernet port. A has half the computing power but is also $10 cheaper.

The motherboard of the device has the Broadcom BCM2835 chipset which supposedly handles graphics better than most current smartphones. Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton stated that a Raspberry Pi device can deliver double the graphic performance of the iPhone 4S. Also, he claims that NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 GPU was put in its (subordinate) place by the Raspberry Pi device. As for proof? At a conference around the time of Raspberry Pi’s initial announcement, XBMC (a media center suite that runs on an Xbox) developers showed how their software could run on a Raspberry Pi device with hardly any trouble.

To really appreciate the graphics capability of the device, both hardware models have RCA and HDMI outputs so they can be plugged into a television. Additionally, the pocket-sized computers also have 2 USB ports so a mouse and keyboard can be plugged in. During the XBMC demo, the device was able to play back 1080p resolution video. For $35? That is pretty impressive. It’s important to point out that the device probably wouldn’t be able to handle streaming video in that high of quality, but for simply displaying video, it does well.

To begin with, the company decided to only produce 10,000 units. Little did they know that the interest in such a device would grow exponentially, and be envisioned for purposes far beyond the realm of education. The sub community of Linux enthusiasts that focus on embedded systems see a lot of potential in the project. For example, one popular futuristic vision is clothing that monitors your health via an in-clothing computer. Raspberry’s Pi device might be the stepping stone to making that project a reality.

In a less sci-fi movie application, Raspberry Pi might ring in the next generation of multimedia set-top boxes. Why have a massive DVR, TiVo, or Netflix box when you can have a device that is reportedly about the size of a deck of playing cards tucked away somewhere neatly and out of sight? Linux enthusiasts are notorious for trying to port their beloved operating system to as many other devices they can, including the feat of engineering accomplished in 2008, which was running Linux from a potato (true story).

The two manufacturing companies handling selling the device are Premier Farnell and RS Components, based in the UK (although all actual manufacturing is being done in China). After both companies’ websites went down last night, Raspberry Pi changed its own website to a static page to prevent any increased traffic from taking them down.

Once the distributors’ websites came back up, for at least a few hours, the option to actually purchase a device was removed due to the overwhelming demand. Reports of being able to actually complete an order this morning are hit and miss – some say they can, others still are unable to do so. Raspberry Pi tweeted an apology this morning, but unfortunately there’s not much anyone can do now about the bumpy start to this product’s sales.

Regardless of last night, I think the demand for this kind of low-cost device is too high to just have one bad release dampen too much enthusiasm for the product. It will be really interesting to see what kind of implementations and innovations come out of this unique venture. To read more about gadgets doing amazing things, check out our blog post “You’re Using the Cloud, But You Might Not Even Realize It.”