A software company reaches into the physical world with hardware.
PayPal is a software company, but when I met with Josh Bleecher Snyder, director of software engineering at PayPal, it was to talk about hardware. He’s leading the development of Beacon, PayPal’s new hands-free payment platform. At its heart is a finger-size stick that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to connect with mobile phones and confirm identity.
Paypal’s move into hardware extends its software into the physical world — a key idea behind our Solid Conference. What was once a system confined to screens and keyboards is now part of a new set of interactions in brick-and-mortar stores.
Beacon is part of a vast PayPal stack, and Bleecher Snyder’s team solved problems with a blend of hardware and software thinking — writing code in Go that was efficient enough for Beacon’s processor to be underclocked and avoid overheating, and to anticipate attacks on PayPal’s service that might come from compromised hardware. His entire system hews to PayPal’s “don’t be creepy” mantra by quickly and permanently discarding data that isn’t used in transactions. Read more…
The key to brilliant factories lies in the combination of information technology and operations systems, says GE's CIO.
Solid is about the intersection of real and virtual — the idea that, through sensors, networks, and intelligent machines, information can move fluidly between software and the physical world. It’s easy to see the technical implications of that intersection — thermostats that adjust themselves and cars that can drive autonomously — but there’s also a crucial management implication as well. Just as design can be automated and optimized if it’s encapsulated in software, a company’s operations can be made much more efficient if they’re modeled digitally before being executed.
Jamie Miller, senior vice president and chief information officer at General Electric, calls that “IT meets OT” and sees the combination changing her industry. “When you take these two disciplines that used to be separate and combine them, you can start to approach engineering and design differently, operate workflow differently, make factories brilliant.” It’s a philosophy that GE uses internally and builds into the products it sells.
Companies like GE have a lot of data — digital designs for manufactured parts, human-resources records, work orders from customers, service manuals — and this data tends to converge on human operators. A field technician might receive a work order to fix a wind turbine, visit the machine, consult documentation, call a colleague for specialized advice, order a replacement part, and finally make the repair. Read more…
Physical and biological design are about to get much more digital, says Autodesk’s CTO.
One of the core ideas behind our Solid Conference is that software can replace physical complexity, and that it’s getting easier for it to do so because the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds is becoming more fluid. Input tools like 3D scanners and computer vision software, and output tools like CNC machines and 3D printers are essentially translators between digital and physical. They make it possible to extract information from physical objects, compute on it, transform it, combine it with other data, and then “rematerialize” it.
I recently spoke with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski about this convergence between physical and digital, and its impact on design. In his view, computers are about to go from mere drafting tables to full partners in the design process. They’ll automate the tedious cycle of trial and error, and leave designers to guide aesthetics and experience. “Decades ago, someone came up with the term ‘computer-aided design,’ but what we’ve had up to now is really computer-aided documentation,” he says. “Design has been accomplished solely in the head of the designer, and then the computer is used to document the outcome.” Read more…
Design in the hardware era, how big companies and small companies should interact, and the importance of data privacy
On stage, along with myself, are three Solid people: Rachel Kalmar, data scientist at Misfit Wearables and member of our program committee; Mike Kuniavsky, principal scientist at PARC and speaker on Functional Forms at Solid; and Dan Saffer, creative director at Smart Design, who will speak about microinteractions (and has written an O’Reilly book about microinteractions as well). Read more…
Talk of the "tech sector" is out of date. Every company is a tech company.
Uber has encountered a series of challenges that are notionally unfamiliar to the current generation of tech companies: wrongful-death lawsuits, rent-seeking by an entrenched industry, regulatory scrutiny from local bureaucrats, worker protests. The company admitted to having disrupted a competitor’s operations by calling its cars, then canceling. No matter how explicitly it warns about surge pricing, riders accustomed to a certain way of booking a car ride object.
There’s an established industry that charges people for rides in cars, and it’s been reduced to a set of straightforward points of competition: price, car quality, ease of booking, and — treacherously for Uber and uncharacteristically for “tech companies” in general — the burly and distasteful accumulation of political clout before municipal taxi commissions. Read more…
Solid's long view includes biology as part of the creator's toolkit.
Tim O’Reilly subjected himself to an engaging Ask Me Anything session on Reddit earlier this week. The focus of the exchange was the Internet of Things, in anticipation of our Solid conference taking place next month.
We’re always listening for faint signals from our community about what they’re getting interested in, and one area that’s stood out to us is biology, which is becoming easier to experiment with at home, as a hobbyist, and through hackerspaces like Biocurious and Genspace. You’ll find a few threads on biology at Solid this year, but we’ve tagged it to be a little more central at Solid 2015. Beyond the hobbyist and health-related applications, we see synthetic biology as another way to translate between virtual and physical, like 3D printers and stereoscopic cameras.
Here’s an exchange from Tuesday’s Reddit thread that sums it up nicely.
What prompted the start of BioCoder? Are people really doing biotech in their garages in the same way that many computer hardware and software innovations happened?
Join Tuesday's "ask me anything" session covering hardware, manufacturing, design, and intelligent devices.
Our new Solid conference covers a lot of ground: hardware, design, manufacturing, and, of course, software. At 10 a.m. Pacific Time / 1 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow (Tuesday, April 22), Tim O’Reilly will take questions on these areas and how he sees them fitting together through a Reddit question-and-answer session on the IAmA board.
The best way to get to the exchange is through this page, which will post the link once it’s available, about an hour before Tim starts taking questions. Tim will be available to answer your questions about the Internet of Things, etc., for about an hour — we look forward to seeing you!
If enough of you join, we might even get a watercolor out of it.
Why everyone must understand manufacturing, and why the most creative companies design hardware and software together.
It was a pleasure, as always, to talk with Joi Ito a couple of weeks ago. He and I are co-chairing Solid, our new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world, and we recorded part of our conversation in the video below to frame the program we’ve assembled.
Joi is, of course, the director of the MIT Media Lab, where the emphasis is on working across disciplines: engineers take on art and designers hit the oscilloscopes. The kind of development process standard in the new generation of hardware startups — small groups of people hacking away at electronics and software to come up with products that combine both — has been familiar at the Media Lab for decades.
Now the Media Lab’s emphasis is on projects that go all the way to manufacturing and distributing: moving from “demo or die” to “deploy or die,” as Joi puts it. Projects that deploy can be vastly more impactful than those that just demo — putting thousands of devices into the hands of users rather than just a couple. Plus, the manufacturing process is a crucial source of both constraints and creative possibility. Joi says, “Understanding manufacturing is going to be key to design, just like understanding the Internet has become key to running a company.”
Other topics that arose in our conversation — and that are also central to Solid: the merging disciplines of hardware and software, the role of expertise in creating manufactured products, agile hardware development, the importance of having software design and hardware design in the same place, and the need for a new ethics as manufacturing becomes democratized.
Data tools are less important than the way you frame your questions.
Max Shron and Jake Porway spoke with me at Strata a few weeks ago about frameworks for making reasoned arguments with data. Max’s recent O’Reilly book, Thinking with Data, outlines the crucial process of developing good questions and creating a plan to answer them. Jake’s nonprofit, DataKind, connects data scientists with worthy causes where they can apply their skills.
A few of the things we talked about:
- The importance of publishing negative scientific results
- Give Directly, an organization that facilitates donations directly to households in Kenya and Uganda. Give Directly was able to model income using satellite data to distinguish thatched roofs from metal roofs.
- Moritz Stefaner calling for a “macroscope”
- Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende’s plan for encompassing the entire Chilean economy in a single real-time computer system
- Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
After we recorded this podcast episode at Strata Santa Clara, Max presided over a webcast on his book that’s archived here.