Building a Solid World

A multitude of signals points to the convergence of software and the physical world.

Building a Solid World by Mike Loukides and Jon BrunerThis is an excerpt from Building a Solid World, a free paper by Mike Loukides and myself about the convergence of software and the physical world.

Our new Solid conference is about the “intersection of software and hardware.” But what does the intersection of software and hardware mean? We’re putting on a conference because we see something distinctly new happening.

Roughly a year ago, we sat around a table in Sebastopol to survey some interesting trends in technology. There were many: robotics, sensor networks, the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet, the professionalization of the Maker movement, hardware-oriented startups. It was a confusing picture, until we realized that these weren’t separate trends. They’re all more alike than different—they are all the visible result of the same underlying forces. Startups like FitBit and Withings were taking familiar old devices, like pedometers and bathroom scales, and making them intelligent by adding computer power and network connections. At the other end of the industrial scale, GE was doing the same thing to jet engines and locomotives. Our homes are increasingly the domain of smart robots, including Roombas and 3D printers, and we’ve started looking forward to self-driving cars and personal autonomous drones. Every interesting new product has a network connection—be it WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or even a basic form of piggybacking through a USB connection to a PC. Everything has a sensor, and devices as dissimilar as an iPhone and a Kinect are stuffed with them. We spent 30 or more years moving from atoms to bits; now it feels like we’re pushing the bits back into the atoms. And we realized that the intersection of these trends—the conjunction of hardware, software, networking, data, and intelligence—was the real “news,” far more important than any individual trend.

We’ve seen software transformed over the last decade by a handful of truly revolutionary developments: pervasive networking that can make the Internet a central part of any piece of software; APIs that make systems available to each other as abstracted modules; clouds like Amazon Web Services that dramatically reduce the capital needed to start a new software venture; open source projects that make expertise available to anyone; selling services rather than products. We now see the same developments coming to the physical world through a new hardware movement.

Software New Hardware
Infrastructural services reduce capital requirements Amazon Web Services PCH
Open source improves access to expertise GitHub Thingiverse; Arduino; Robot Operating System
APIs let developers build on platforms Twitter API Smart Things; IFTTT
Ubiquitous connectivity WiFi ZigBee; Bluetooth
Data enables optimization Netflix recommendations Taleris (airline management)
Direct-to-consumer retail channels Apple App Store ShopLocket; Quirky; Grand Street
Products sold as services Uber; Zipcar
Hobbyists become entrepreneurs Yahoo! MakerBot emerges from NYC Resistor
Software intelligence decreases need for interaction Google Now Nest thermostat; Google driverless car

So What’s New?

Hardware that has software in it isn’t the least bit new. TVs and cars have had software-driven components since the 1980s, if not earlier. Chrysler introduced a computerized anti-lock braking system back in 1971. Microwave ovens, dishwashers, probably even those fancy beds that let you adjust the position of the mattress and many other settings: these all have hefty doses of microprocessors and software. So what’s new? Didn’t software and hardware converge a long time ago?

The hardware renaissance of the last few years entails more than just embedding CPUs into appliances. It’s built on ubiquitous networking, which changes the game radically. Devices with embedded computers become much more powerful when they’re connected to a network. Now we have networked televisions, networked loudspeakers that receive MP3s from a server, and networked devices that let us find our lost keys—and we call that the “Internet of Things” or the “Internet of Everything” or the “Industrial Internet,” depending on which vendor’s language you like.

The Internet of Things crossed our radar back in 2001, at O’Reilly’s first Foo Camp. It was an interesting idea: we wondered what would be possible if we could assign an IP address to every physical object. Back then, we were skeptical: who cares? Why would I want my shoes to have an IP address? That question is still useful, but the answers we’re getting now are much different. In 2001, networked shoes sounded like gratuitous geekery, but in 2014, in the context of the Quantified Self, network-enabled shoes that log your every step make complete sense. At the same time, the conversation has moved beyond easy-to-lampoon examples like connected refrigerators and has come to include important industrial and commercial applications for connected devices: jet engines, power plants, cars. In this context, the Internet of Things promises to make the world dramatically more efficient, safer, and more accessible.

Networking is hardly a new technology. Some industrial controls and building systems have had various kinds of network connectivity since the mainframe era, and local networks inside passenger cars have been commonplace since the 1980s. Remote supervisory control of utility assets is a basic safety feature. What makes networking in 2014 different is 20 or 30 years of Internet history: we understand how to build standard protocols, from the lowest layer of the hardware up through the applications themselves. We understand how to make devices from different manufacturers interoperate.

This ubiquitous connectivity is meeting the era of data. Since working with large quantities of data became dramatically cheaper and easier a few years ago, everything that touches software has become instrumented and optimized. Finance, advertising, retail, logistics, academia, and practically every other discipline has sought to measure, model, and tweak its way to efficiency. Software can ingest data from lots of inputs, interpret it, and then issue commands in real time.

That intelligence is coming to the physical world now. Software in the cloud, operating above the level of a single machine, can correspond with millions of physical devices—retrieving data from them, interpreting that data in a global context, and controlling them in real time. The result is a fluid system of hardware and software.

Now let’s add something else to the mix: the “new manufacturing.” In the past few years, we’ve seen major changes in how manufacturing works—everywhere from huge Shenzhen factories to local distributed manufacturing that uses 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machine tools. While offshore manufacturing is associated most closely with Foxconn and Apple, many companies provide manufacturing services that can be used (with care) by the smallest of startups. Small-scale CNC technologies make low-cost prototyping possible, and in the future, may bring manufacturing into the home.

Like software, hardware must be carefully designed, developed, and deployed—but we call deployment manufacturing. Software and hardware are merging into a single fluid discipline, with a single development process that encompasses both software and hardware. Few people need deep, low-level understanding of every module (just as few people need deep, low-level understanding of every software technology), but many people will soon need some integrated understanding of both hardware and software.

As we set out to define a program that encompasses the fusion of hardware and software, we recognized eight key concepts that are present in just about every interesting hardware project, from mobile accessories to airliners. We describe them in the following meme map and in the body of our paper.


Solid-report-cover-smallThis is an excerpt from Building a Solid World, a free paper by Mike Loukides and Jon Bruner about the convergence of software and the physical world.

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