The Kitchen Appliance Phase of Hardware


The Internet of Things is all the rage lately. It seems to be all that tech sites want to talk about and therefore what a ton of startups want to work on. I’ve been watching this space closely for the last 5 years and I can’t help but compare hardware, in it’s current iteration, to being just like kitchen gadgets on the Home Shopping Network (link intentionally left off). What do I mean by that? Well, let’s talk about apples for a minute.

Apple Tech

Not the kind that comes with 64GB of flash or a digital crown. I’m talking plain old apples here. The kind you grow in orchards. Did you know that you can easily spend over $50 on apple tech to help prepare a Fuji for consumption. $33 for the peeler, $10 for the corer and then another $10 for the slicer to create perfectly prepared apple portions. I’m sure all of these things do their job extremely well. But after I clamp the peeler to my counter and include the time and energy it takes me to wash all of those things every time I want an apple am I really better off? No. And that’s why I still use my potato peeler and a sharp knife to prepare apples…just like my grandmother almost a century ago. And it’s not just apples. There are slicers, mixers, special spoons and baking dishes. Thousands of things and if I bought every piece of kitchen tech out there I’d need a semi truck to hold it all. And not a single one fundamentally changes how I eat apples.

Hardware “Kitchen” Appliances

By and large this is where hardware is stuck at the moment. We’re in a massive movement of “Build it Because We Can”. The number of platforms that have come out in just the past 5 to 7 years has launched hardware to center stage. Normal people can do things with hardware in their basement that were either too hard or just too expensive 10 years ago. Do you have any idea how hard it was to create a WiFi enabled coffee pot 10 years ago? Even 5 years ago? Now you can take your pick of platforms to help you do it in an evening for less than $100. Raspberry Pi, Tessel, SparkCore, Edison, Arduino and dozens of other platforms have made hardware development almost trivial in some cases. And with the good comes the questionable. Kickstarter after failed Kickstarter. IoT products that, while novel, don’t fundamentally change our lives as their creators seem to think. Most are just another fancy apple peeler. I hate to pick on anyone but just a few examples.

Cooler



Most backed project on Kickstarter ever with over $13 million in pledges. It’s a cooler with a blender, iphone doc and speakers. Oh, and obviously an LED and bottle opener.

Bt.tn



A $99 button that connects to the internet which can be programmed to perform a task when you press it.

Blink(1)



A $35 programmable indicator light.

All of these are novel, maybe even cool, nice to have projects but are they really representative of “What’s Next” for hardware and the already-started Internet of Things revolution? My historical vote is, no. At least I sure hope not.

Hardware is the New Software

I’ve heard that phrase floating around the interwebs. “Hardware is the new software.” It’s easy to say and I happen to agree actually but what does it mean? I think software has shown us the trajectory that hardware is going to follow. Software has been around since the 50s but if we look at mass adoption/creation in the “hacker” community it’s really been around since the Mac and Windows came out. I’m going to say the mid to late 80s. It was a great time of normal people doing amazing things that software had never done before because it was, you guessed it, either too hard or just too expensive a decade earlier. But just a short decade later the whole thing came crashing down. Only those pieces of software that fundamentally changed our lives made it through the event horizon known as the dot com bubble. The novelty wore off and we were left to realize that as humans we have an innate ability to filter noise out of our technical lives. And so it will go with hardware. The noise will all get filtered out. I think we’re about 5 to 7 years in and the crash is coming. It’s only after the implosion that the truly interesting and paradigm-shifting things will emerge and really take shape.

So What Do We Do?

Just let if flow. I don’t know that there is a way to avoid the great hardware filter that’s coming because I genuinely think that it’s a necessary part of the evolutionary cycle of hardware. The Kitchen Appliance Phase of hardware, while annoying at times, isn’t inherently bad. It’s just a part of the journey that hardware has to go through. We have to get through this stage. Get it out of our system so we can move on to the really interesting things. The Dot-com Bubble wasn’t a complete waste. It didn’t kill software. On the contrary, it forced it to the next level and that’s exactly what hardware is waiting on.

I, for one, have never been more pumped. These are really exciting times and the future potential is seemingly unlimited. We’re learning things that we need to learn and pushing the movement forward. Just make sure you understand what’s coming and hopefully that will help you effectively navigate through it.