The New York Times just ran an article discussing all manner of neat hardware startups, a fair few of which I already knew well (Nest, Lytro, Raspberry Pi), but quite a few I hadn’t heard of before (Pebble, Bilibot, Electric Imp, LittleBits, Ouya, etc). The conclusion, of course, is that Hardware Is The New Software, and that Venture Capitalists are getting superexcited about this trend.
Well… it’s a great theory, but unless you’ve got an unbelievably sci-fi pitch (like Pebble, whose core idea of a totally programmable watch I remember first proposing to a VC friend a whole decade ago), building your company up to the stage that you can sensible go looking for scale-up funding [which is what almost all VC investment has now become] is a particularly hard trawl, with very few angels wanting to take that road with you.
However… it struck me while reading the article that even though the hardware development cost curve would appear from the outside to be trending towards zero, this is almost entirely as a result of a systemic realignment within the development / design world away from traditional custom dev systems and towards low-cost tools. For example, I shudder to think how many USB dev tools lie scattered around my workspace – oscilloscopes, logic probes, Bus Pirates, RS485 interfaces, wireless adapters, phone interfaces, etc. Hence this is not a zero-trend, this is merely shifting from an older development paradigm to another newer one. Hardware development will remain resolutely non-zero for a loooong time (and let’s not get into the issue of CE & UL testing, ok?)
As for 3d printing, people have been using this for prototyping for well over a decade now, but the big difference these days lies in the scale of the usage and the wider range of materials that are available to print in (i.e. not just compromised low-end ABS). Yet even so, the real world of plastic manufacturing continues to move ever further away – a typical industrial device (such as my security camera) uses a whole symphony of different plastics to achieve both functionality and reliability, and new materials are introduced all the time.
The real hardware revolution will start when we can print injection moulds in our garages… but though I famously pitched that to the Tech City LaunchPad1 competition, nobody seems interested (as my ‘Zoe’ avatar says at the end, “no chance – next time stick to social media, ok?”) It’s only a trillion dollar industry, why should anyone want to invest in anything so pathetically small? 🙂 But once again, the chances would seem high that I’ve arrived at a great party seven years too soon, as per bl&^dy normal… oh well. 😦
Incidentally, one of the NYT article’s authors is the very affable John Markoff, who also writes about historical cryptography, one of my parallel passions (in case you don’t already know).