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Hardware is the New Software

I’m a software guy. While I am more than comfortable rooting and flashing a custom ROM onto my wife’s Galaxy S III, I need help setting up a printer. Lucky for me, my career’s arc also coincided with the rise of software.

Back when I graduated university oh so many moons ago, software was literally rocket science. I entered the industry at the cusp of the transition from the mainframe/minicomputer eras to the client/server era. When I started coding at a Wall Street firm in the early 1990s, software was controlled by “men in white coats” in the mainframe room. I use to send jobs to CICS via JCL (not a Java class library for anyone under 40) and had to wait for approval, then for execution time. Software was complex to build, expensive to produce, and had way too many moving parts. In short, software sucked and only NASA and big banks invested in custom software development.

Lucky for me, that quickly changed and the client/server era, followed by the .COM era liberated millions of software developers like me. The last twenty years have seen a revolution in the ease of building software and the economics of software development, changing the lives of just about everyone on the planet. Software’s liberation from the men in white coats in the Mainframe room has made entrepreneurship far easier (and cheaper) as I have described here.

Over the past few months I have realized something, just as I thought that the software revolution was only catching its stride after 20 years of liberation, I noticed that everyone around me was building something physical. Maybe this is because I live in Hong Kong and the high tech manufacturing center of the world is a 30 minute train ride away in Shenzhen, China. Or maybe it is because my mentor is obsessed with 3-D printers and has had a 3-D printer the size of a washing machine in his basement for a decade. But no, something else is happening: Hardware is the New Software.

My eyes started to open on a day trip to Shenzhen earlier this year to the Huaqiangbei Electronics market. My friend who brought me to the market made it sound like a giant Frys or even Best Buy, however, what I encountered was astonishing. This is how I describe Huaqiangbei to people: imagine the largest shopping mall you have ever seen. Picture it filled with just a single component of motherboards. Then picture an identical one next to it containing just the internals of a USB port. Then picture an identical one next to it filled with just WiFi radios. Then one for cell phone screens, wires, LED displays, etc, etc. The place is enormous and supports the supply chain of the large contract manufacturers in Shenzhen, like Foxconn building your iPad.

The side effects of the radical growth of consumer electronics and its suppliers ecosystem are huge. Hardware has gotten cheaper and componentized. Hardware has been liberated!


Curator's Note: We've seen how liberating and important hardware is in enabling a multi-device OS platform like Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Earlier this year I was helping out and mentoring a company in an accelerator in China. This was no ordinary accelerator, it was the first ever hardware accelerator, HAXLR8R. HAXLR8R took in a cohort of ten companies and had them spend three months in Shenzhen building their prototypes and had the final “demo days” in Silicon Valley. The company that I helped mentor put their project on Kickstarter and raised the required $200k in less than a week and have raised well over $350k in three weeks.

Earlier this week, I was judging the Imagine Cup, an international software competition for university students. After well over 200 teams from 75 countries was narrowed down to six finalists, here was the breakdown:

  • 3 teams were a hardware solution that was supported by custom software that they wrote
  • 1 team built a piece of hardware and connected a Kinect to it
  • 1 team was a software solution that had a Kinect component to it as well
  • 1 team was a pure software solution

Five out of the six teams incorporated hardware, and four of those built their own hardware! For a software competition! By students!

Just as software was once hard to build and expensive to prototype years ago, as recently as three years ago, hardware was difficult and expensive. Just as software was liberated 20 years ago, hardware has been liberated, thanks to componentized supply chains, the economies of scale, and open hardware facilitation co-work spaces in many cities such as Dim Sum Labs here in Hong Kong and SEED Studio in Shenzhen.  Now just about anyone can rapidly and cheaply prototype their hardware solution and seek a first production run by an eager factory in the developing world funded by putting the prototype up on Kickstarter. The DYI (do it yourself) revolution has begun!

The software revolution changed the world in some pretty dramatic ways. The hardware revolution will be even more dramatic.

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