The challenge of connecting anything to the Internet

The O'Reilly Solid Podcast: Zach Supalla and Will Hart on building a supply chain, making radios work, and taking on big telecom.


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A few weeks ago, hours after launching a blow-out Kickstarter campaign, Zach Supalla and Will Hart of Spark Labs dropped by our podcasting studio to have a wide-ranging conversation about how they’d built a successful hardware startup, how they manage their overseas supply chain, and how they’re taking on established machine-to-machine and telecom companies by turning themselves into a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).

Zach and Will are leading a workshop at our Solid Conference called “How to manage China” on how to build and maintain a supply chain.

Spark’s latest product, the Electron, is a tiny development kit that can connect just about any kind of device to Spark’s back-end platform over a 3G cellular signal for as little as $3 per month.

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It’s an illustration of a couple of themes I’ve been talking about that are core to Solid: First, Spark was able to use frictionless manufacturing to get its products made quickly and inexpensively in China. Building a supply chain isn’t as easy as spinning up an Amazon EC2 instance, but it’s much easier than it was a few years ago. The fallen barriers are particularly notable for startups, who don’t need to invest in big engineering groups or pay cash upfront to manufacturers.

Secondly, Spark’s products essentially become APIs for the physical world, forming an easy-to-use, highly abstracted way to help software communicate with physical devices. This is another respect in which barriers are falling: you don’t need deep electronics expertise to get a piece of hardware connected to the Internet. And when you connect hardware to the Internet, you can do a great deal in Web software rather than relying on low-level programming on embedded systems.

Full disclosure: Spark Labs is a portfolio company of O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, a sister firm to O’Reilly Media.

The Solid Podcast is hosted by Jon Bruner and David Cranor, and focuses on the people, ideas, and technology that we feature at the O’Reilly Solid Conference. Episodes are edited by Brian Burge, with closing music by Thaddeus Bromstrup.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Pardesi on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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