Hardware is the New WebFollow article
An Arduino workshop at the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco (© Mitch Altman, CC BY-SA 2.0)
With hardware start-ups on the increase, countless gadgets funded via Kickstarter and a resurgence of interest in electronics as a hobby, it looks as though hardware is set become the new Web.
From the first public radio broadcast in 1910 to the home computer revolution of the 1980s, electronics served as the most visible face of technology in the 20th century. When for almost 100 years everyday lives were being transformed by a stream of new appliances, intrepid early adopters could get a slice of the action if they could solder, and electronics empires were being born in garages.
With the arrival of the PC and then the Web we saw a shift in focus, and while software requires computers and the Internet is built upon networking and communications hardware, these took a backseat position and applications and online services garnered more attention. All the hottest start-ups were online and many budding engineers took to software development rather than soldering.
As we move further into the 21st century it appears that the balance may be redressed, with attention shifting back towards hardware — or perhaps products that span both physical and online worlds. What follows is a brief look at some of the enablers, drivers and indicators of this shift.
Low cost tools and technology
Raspberry Pi, the hacker-friendly and highly affordable embedded development platform.
Prototyping and small scale manufacture has never been cheaper, with the cost of desktop 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC milling machines having fallen dramatically over the last few years.
Earlier this year saw the launch of the Raspberry Pi and already tens of thousands if not more have access to a powerful embedded systems development platform. With everyone from software developers to hobbyists and schoolchildren now getting their first taste of hardware hacking.
These are just two examples out of many more.
A network of hackerspaces continues to spread across the globe, providing physical spaces for those with a common interest in electronics, mechanical engineering, computing and many other technical topics to meet, share skills, host workshops and collaborate on projects.
Hackerspaces not only facilitate human networks, but typically provide shared access to tools and test equipment too. More recently we have also seen the spread of Fab labs, providing access to more expensive tools and equipment and with professional help always on hand.
The recent/ongoing economic crisis has led politicians to suggest that a return to manufacturing is key to enabling long-term growth. With the UK's Business Secretary, Vince Cable, launching a campaign to change the perception of manufacturing, and reasons for optimism being reported.
Embedded systems continue to shrink in size while also becoming more powerful and energy efficient, and are a key enabler for the Internet of Things (IoT), which promises a world in which physical objects — “smart” objects — gather, create and consume data without human intervention.
Voting with their wallets
The crowd funding platform, Kickstarter, suggests that this is far more than just a hobbyist phenomena, political rhetoric or a vision of the distant future, and many crowd-funded hardware projects and start-ups are already doing exceedingly well. Which is not surprising, as what better reward for those that pledge money than physical product. So much better than a mug or a t-shirt in return for supporting the development of an online service...
Molecule Synth, a hardware project that raised 173% of its Kickstarter funding target with 11 days still to go.
In May 2011 the New York Times published a feature on the new wave of American manufacturing entrepreneurs, entitled The kitchen-table Industrialists. Seven months later the Economist ran a piece suggesting that the maker movement “may even herald a new industrial revolution”.
Busineweek reported in July 2012 that “In Silicon Valley, hardware is hot again”. A view that the New York Times echoed in an article the following month suggesting that there is “A Hardware Renaissance in Silicon Valley”.
Whatever the reasons, there is quite clearly a renewed interest in electronics and engineering in general as a hobby. The availability of low cost tools, along with technology such as the Raspberry Pi that promotes learning and experimentation, will only serve to foster this. While hackerspaces are providing a focal point for grassroots technical communities and fab labs a key service to manufacturing ventures that are just starting out.
With the dotcom crash behind us, a few Web 2.0 valuation reality checks on the horizon and a reduced faith in the financial services industry, this desire to create tangible value can only grow.