- Do Artifacts Have Ethics? — 41 questions to ask yourself about the technology you create.
- MDBM — Yahoo’s fast key-value store, in use for over a decade. Super-fast, using mmap and passing around (gasp) raw pointers.
- The Revolution in Biology is Here, Now (Mike Loukides) — I’ve been asked plenty of times (and I’ve asked plenty of times), “what’s the killer product for synthetic biology?” BioFabricate convinced me that that’s the wrong question. We may never have some kind of biological iPod. That isn’t the right way to think. What I saw, instead, was real products that you might never notice. Bricks made from sand that are held together by microbes designed to excrete the binder. Bricks and packing material made from fungus (mycelium). Plastic excreted by bacteria that consume waste methane from sewage plants. You wouldn’t know, or care, whether your plastic Lego blocks are made from petroleum or from bacteria, but there’s a huge ecological difference.
- Bluesmart — Indiegogo campaign for a “connected carry-on,” aka a smart suitcase. From the mobile app you can track it, learn when it’s close (or too far away), (un)lock, weigh…and you can plug your devices in and recharge from the built-in battery. Sweet!
Our new report, "What is the Internet of Things," traces the IoT's transformations and impact.
One of the reasons that it’s ubiquitous is that it bears on practically everything. A few years ago, many companies might plausibly have argued that they weren’t affected by developments in software. If you dealt in physical goods, it was hard to see how software that existed strictly in the virtual realm might touch your business.
The Internet of Things changes that; the kinds of software intelligence that have already revolutionized industries like finance and advertising are about to revolutionize all the other industries.
Mike Loukides and I have traced out our idea of the Internet of Things and its impacts in a report, “What is the Internet of Things,” that’s available for free here.
As much as we all love the romance and gratification of hardware, the Internet of Things is really about software; the hardware just links the Internet to the rest of the world. If you think of the IoT as a newly developing area in software, it’s easy to draw out some characteristics of it that are analogous to things we’ve seen in web software over the last decade or so. Read more…
Core competencies and essential reading from hardware, software, manufacturing, and the IoT.
As I noted in “Physical and virtual are blurring together,” we now have hardware that acts like software, and software that’s capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world. So, what must the innovator, the creator, the executive, the researcher, and the artist do to embrace this convergence of hardware and software?
At its core, this is about a shift from discipline toward intent. Individuals and institutions — whether they’re huge enterprises, small start-ups, or nonprofits — must be competent in several disciplines that increasingly overlap, and should be prepared to solve problems by working fluidly across disciplines.
To use Joi Ito’s example, someone who wants to develop a synthetic eye might begin to approach the problem with biology, or electronics, or software, or (most likely) all three together. Many problems can be solved somewhere in a large multidimensional envelope that trades off design, mechanics, electronics, software, biology, and business models. Experts might still do the best work in each discipline, but everyone needs to know enough about all of them to know where to position a project between them.
Below you’ll find the core competencies in the intersection between software and the physical world, and our favorite books and resources for each one.
Electronics for physical-digital applications
- Practical Electronics, by John M. Hughes: To know what’s possible and where to start, it’s essential to understand both the analog and digital sides of electronics. This is O’Reilly’s authoritative introduction to both analog and digital electronics, with information on circuit design, common parts and techniques, and microcontrollers.
- Raspberry Pi Cookbook, by Simon Monk: The Raspberry Pi is rapidly becoming the standard embedded computing platform for prototyping and experimentation, with enough computing power to run familiar interpreted programming languages and widely supported operating systems.
- Arduino Cookbook, by Michael Margolis: The Arduino microcontroller offers a fluid interface between digital and physical; it’s highly extensible and accessible to people with no prior experience in either electronics or code.
Tim O'Reilly and Carl Bass discuss the future of making things, and Astro Teller on Google X's approach to solving big problems.
I recently lamented the lag in innovation in relation to the speed of technological advancements — do we really need a connected toaster that will sell itself if neglected? Subsequently, I had a conversation with Josh Clark that made me rethink that position; Clark pointed out that play is an important aspect of innovation, and that such whimsical creations as drum pants could ultimately lead to more profound innovations.
In the first segment of this podcast episode, Tim O’Reilly and Autodesk CEO Carl Bass have a wide-ranging discussion about the future of making things. Bass notes that innovation tends to start by “looking at the rear window”:
“The first naïve response is to take a new technology and do the old thing with it. It takes a while until you can start reimagining things…the first thing that you need is this new tool set in software, hardware, and materials, but the more important thing — and the more difficult thing, obviously — is a new mind-set. How are you going to think about this problem differently? How are you going to reimagine what you can do? That’s the exciting part.”
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…
Miscalculating funding thresholds can sink your startup.
There is widespread consensus that crowdfunding is a boon, an egalitarian means for bringing products and services to market without relying on banks, venture capitalists, or established financial angels. Myriad platforms now allow entrepreneurs and folks with a little (or a lot) of cash to get together without the red tape and angst that so often accompanies the soliciting and procuring of startup funds.
But that doesn’t mean crowdfunding is a panacea. In fact, observes Scott Miller, CEO and co-founder of Dragon Innovation, Inc., crowdfunding platforms have an Achilles heel: an inability to deliver hardware.
“Over the past year or 18 months, we’ve seen a pretty disturbing trend in crowdfunding,” Miller says. “A lot of campaigns meet their thresholds, but they ultimately don’t deliver the goods. That’s usually not due to fraud — it’s largely because many of the people who launch these nascent companies don’t understand hardware. They may want to drive people to their campaign by posting a low threshold, or they may not understand the expense involved in getting a prototype to high-volume production, but in either event, they wind up with insufficient capital. So, when the time comes to actually manufacture their product, they don’t have enough money, and they can’t recover. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost as a result.” Read more…
A multitude of signals points to 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. Read more…
A conversation with Chris Anderson, Nick Pinkston, and Jie Qi
Manufacturing is hard, but it’s getting easier. In every stage of the manufacturing process–prototyping, small runs, large runs, marketing, fulfillment–cheap tools and service models have become available, dramatically decreasing the amount of capital required to start building something and the expense of revising and improving a product once it’s in production.
In this episode of the Radar podcast, we speak with Chris Anderson, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics; Nick Pinkston, a manufacturing expert who’s working to make building things easy for anyone; and Jie Qi, a student at the MIT Media Lab whose recent research has focused on the factories of Shenzhen.
Along the way we talk about the differences between Tesla’s auto plant and its previous incarnation as the NUMMI plant; the differences between on-shoring, re-shoring and near-shoring; and how the innovative energy of Kickstarter and the Maker movement can be brought to underprivileged populations.
Many of these topics will come up at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world. Solid’s call for proposals open through December 9. We’re planning a series of Solid meet-ups, plant tours, and books about the collision of real and virtual; if you’ve got an idea for something the series should explore, please reach out!
Software and hardware are moving together, and the combined result is a new medium.
An updated version of this essay was published in December 2014.
The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which use drones to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; in SmartThings, which ties Web services to light switches.
The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers. Read more…
An incubator that leads to an accelerator that leads to China's high-volume manufacturers.
Manufacturing is rapidly becoming more accessible to people whose expertise lies elsewhere. The change is most apparent at the small scale, where it’s become easy to order prototypes made on high-quality 3D printers and electronics in small batches from domestic factories. High-volume Chinese manufacturing has been tougher to get into.
A new incubator launching today, and led by our former O’Reilly colleague Brady Forrest, is aimed at lowering the barriers to getting physical goods manufactured fast and in high volumes. Highway1 will prepare nascent hardware companies to enter the accelerator pipeline of the Sino-Irish supply-chain giant PCH International. It offers portfolio companies up to $20,000 and a hardware crash-course that includes a trip to the factories of Shenzhen. Forrest says his curriculum will eventually be made public (minus the China junket, of course).
The successful companies that progress to PCH’s accelerator will have PCH as both an investor and supply-chain manager, essentially drawing from the same network that supplies some of Silicon Valley’s bestsellers.
Forrest put it to me this way: “There is no Amazon Web Services for hardware, but we’re the closest thing to it.”