"collision of hardware and software" entries

Hardware is an elusive constraint on user experience

Andrew “bunnie” Huang on understanding the interplay between software, hardware, and the existing supply chain.

Editor’s note: this interview with Andrew “bunnie” Huang is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

Andrew “bunnie” Huang has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, but he is most famous for reverse engineering the Xbox, establishing his reputation as one of the world’s greatest hardware hackers. He sees an evolving relationship between hardware and software.

“It used to be that products were limited solely by the capability of their hardware. Early radios, for example, had mechanical buttons that acted directly on the physics of the receiver,” says Huang. “As hardware becomes more capable, the user experience of the hardware is more dictated by the software that runs on it. Now that hardware is ridiculously capable — you basically have supercomputers in your pockets that cost next to nothing — pretty much the entire user experience of the product is dictated by the software. The hardware simply serves as an elusive constraint on the user experience.”

Hardware is “a cage,” says Huang, and good software developers learn to work within the constraints of the hardware. “When I work with programmers on new products, I take the first prototype, put it on the desk and I say, ‘Welcome to your new cage.’ That’s the reality. There’s a hard wall. But we try to build the cage big enough so there are options for programmers. A quad core Android phone with a gigabyte of memory is a pretty big cage. Sometimes when programmers feel constrained, they’re just being lazy. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat in the software world.” Read more…

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Welcome to the age of indie hardware

The shifting economics around manufacturing is fueling an indie hardware movement.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report When Hardware Meets Software — download the free report here.

All trends rise and fall. A new generation of smart techies has emerged to challenge the false duality of the hardware versus software paradigm. The spiritual heirs of the ham radio operators and homemade rocket enthusiasts of the 1940s and 50s have coalesced to form a maker culture that is quietly subverting the standard industrial model of product design and development.

Even if they aren’t the actual grandsons and granddaughters of the original hobbyists, they apply the same kind of grit, smarts and do-it-yourself confidence as earlier generations of inventors and tinkerers who labored in basements, backyards, and garages all over the world.

Unlike their predecessors, whose audiences were limited mostly to friends and family members, the new generation is sharing its inventiveness globally and selling gadgets through maker-friendly e-commerce markets such as Tindie, Make, and Grand St. Read more…

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Intoxicating machines

The revolutionary thing about desktop machines is that they'll make experimentation easier.

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Cropped screenshot of Carvey. Source: the Carvey Kickstarter campaign.

“Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about,” [Richard] Feynman later explained. “The trouble with computers is you play with them.”
— George Dyson, describing the beginning of the Manhattan Project’s computing effort in Turing’s Cathedral.

I’ve been reading George Dyson’s terrific history of the early development of the digital computer, and the quote above struck me. Even when they were little more than room-sized adding machines that had to be painstakingly programmed with punchcards, computers offered an intoxicating way to experiment. Most programmers can probably remember their first few scripts and the thrilling feeling of performing millions of operations in seconds. Computers let us take some abstracted human process and repeat it quickly, at almost no cost, with easy modification along the way. Read more…

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Materials that make up our world

Digital manufacturing is the future — reusable, composable, and rapid from top to bottom.

lego_blocks

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series reflecting on the O’Reilly Solid Conference from the perspective of a data scientist. Normally we wouldn’t publish takeaways from an event held nearly two months ago, but these insights were so good we thought they needed to be shared.

In mid-May, I was at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference on the convergence of hardware and software. In Part one of this series, I talked about the falling cost of bringing a hardware start-up to market, about the trends leading to that drop, and a few thoughts on how that relates to the role of a data scientist.

I mentioned two phrases that I’ve heard Jon Bruner say, in one form or another. The first, “merging of hardware and software,” was covered in the last piece. The other is the “exchange between the virtual and actual.” I also mentioned that I think the material future of physical stuff is up for grabs. What does that mean, and how do those two sentiments tie together? Read more…

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Embracing hardware data

Looking at the collision of hardware and software through the eyes of a data scientist.

Raspberry Pi Board. Via Wikimedia Commons

Many aspects of a hardware device can be liberally prototyped. A Raspberry Pi (such as the one seen above) can function as a temporary bridge before ARM circuit boards are put into place.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series reflecting on the O’Reilly Solid Conference from the perspective of a data scientist. Normally we wouldn’t publish takeaways from an event held nearly two months ago, but these insights were so good we thought they needed to be shared.

In mid-May, I was at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference on the convergence of hardware and software. I went in as something close to a blank slate on the subject, as someone with (I thought) not very strong opinions about hardware in general.

The talk on the grapevine in my community, data scientists who tend to deal primarily with web data, was that hardware data was the next big challenge, the place that the “alpha geeks” were heading. There are still plenty of big problems left to solve on the web, but I was curious enough to want to go check out Solid to see if I was missing out on the future. I don’t have much experience with hardware — beyond wiring up LEDs as a kid, making bird houses in shop class in high school, and mucking about with an Arduino in college. Read more…

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Welcome back, Weblandians

The collision of software and hardware has broken down the barriers between the digital and physical worlds.

Note: this post is a slightly hydrated version of my Solid keynote. To get it out in 10 minutes, I had to remove a few ideas and streamline it a bit for oral delivery; this is the full version.

In 1995, Nicolas Negroponte told us to forget about the atoms and focus on the bits. I think “being digital” was probably an intentional overstatement, a provocation to shove our thinking off of its metastable emphasis on the physical, to open us up to the power of the purely digital. And maybe it worked too well, because a lot of us spent two decades plumbing every possibility of digital-only technologies and digital-only businesses.

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Solid attendees watch a Bot & Dolly demonstration of their Iris robot. Photo by O’Reilly.

By then, technology had bifurcated into two streams of hardware and software that rarely converged outside of the data center, and for most of us, unless we were with a firm the size of Sony, with a huge addressable market, hardware was simply outside the scope of our entrepreneurial ambitions. It was our platform, but rarely our product. The physical world was for other people to worry about. We had become by then the engineers of the ephemeral, the plastic, and the immaterial. And in the depth of our immersion into the virtual and digital, we became, it seems, citizens of Weblandia (and congregants of the Church of Disruption).

But pendulums always swing back. Read more…

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Why PayPal jumped the software-hardware gap

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…

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That thing looks like hardware, but it’s software now

Building great software on time is at the heart of more and more "hardware" projects.

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The X-35A JSF performs flight tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I saw this piece in the U.S. Naval Institute News today that notes software delays could translate into less effective Joint Strike Fighters. (It’s based on the GAO’s report that can be found here.) I also read somewhere that the biggest difference between versions used by our domestic armed forces and those sold overseas would be their software load.

I think what’s most interesting about this story is that when we look at an airplane we tend to see a physical thing. We see airfoils, materials, and hard sciences animated and airborne, but a growing proportion of the “thingness” of these machines is happening in software — software that makes it fly and software that connects it with all the other things on the battlefield, to share information and fight as one organism.

This airplane will require approximately eight million lines of code on board to run mission systems and flight sciences. I’m guessing flight sciences code will be the same for the U.S. and its partner / buyers, but I’m not sure. Given that the aircraft is flying but not operational, one could hazard a guess that the flight sciences code is coming along faster than the mission stuff with all its complex real-time target fusion stuff going on. And the mission code is the really interesting part. It’s what makes a single aircraft part of a bigger whole. It’s analogous to what makes the Nest more than just your typical thermostat, but much, much more. Read more…

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Exploring software, hardware, everywhere

A Twitter Q&A follow-up to my conversation with Tim O'Reilly.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly and I sat down in San Francisco and had a conversation about the collision of hardware and software. The fact that digital entrepreneurs see hardware as part of their available palette now is really interesting, as is the way many companies with traditional manufacturing roots are seeing digitization and software as key parts of their businesses in the near future. Software plus more malleable hardware is like a whole new medium for building products and services. We really are on the cusp of interesting times.

As our time wound down, questions were still coming in via Twitter. Since we couldn’t get to all of them during the time allotted, I thought I’d try to respond to a few more of them here. Read more…

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Resilience over strength

Why the connected world should hang loose.

As we accelerate toward the great convergence of hardware and software — where almost everything we do may be monitored and transformed into commoditized data points — a 1989 observation from novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick seems increasingly, and uncomfortably, germane:

“The passion for inheritance is dead. [Today,] knowledge — saturated in historical memory — is displaced by information, or memory without history: data.”

The triumph of data over knowledge would be deeply depressing not because it represents catastrophe; we would continue working out, going to restaurants and taking our kids to school. Civil society would not collapse. Indeed, our lives would be ever more enriched with layers of raw information that could be bent to our will and interests. But we will have lost context and meaning. Our options could be increased by outsourcing our memory and ratiocinative processes to the cloud and a worldwide web of sensors, but we would be less interesting people: flatter, duller, intellectually truncated.

Then again, Ozick is a writer and social critic, not a prophet. Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, has another take. While the collision of hardware and software is irreversible, Ito emphasizes it is not a monolithic force that will turn us into digitally lobotomized drones. Knowledge is not lost, says Ito, nor is Ozick’s “passion for inheritance” dead. Both may be compartmentalized — but they are always accessible. Read more…

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