When I observe
what’s happening to consumer electronics I get a feeling of déjà vu. Is consumer hardware going through the same
transformation that consumer software did in the last decade? Change has been simmering
in the hardware space for years and now I wonder if we are about to witness a convergence
that will cause transformational shifts and disruptions to hardware like those
brought about in software with the advent of “the cloud”?
Ten years ago if you had a good idea and raised a million
dollars in seed funding to start an Internet software company, you’d spend
20-30 percent of your capital, sometimes more, on basic infrastructure. You had to rent your own hosting cage. You had to lease and
rack-and-stack your own servers, switches and firewalls. And you would likely have
to license and install costly software. Finally you had to hire someone to
manage it all.
There was no app store and no Facebook
“likes”. You had to manufacture physical discs and boxes and shrink-wrap the
software. You had to do "distribution deals" with retailers. And you
needed a co-marketing budget in order to buy ads and shelf space.
It was not uncommon for a company to raise a full $3-5
million before even launching their product or service.
Efficiency of capital in the software space was low ten years ago because so
much of it had to be spent on undifferentiated, commodity infrastructure and costly awareness building.
The consequence of having to raise a lot of capital in order
to build software was that barriers to entry were high and innovation stifled. Ten years ago it was almost impossible for a 22-year old college grad
to start a software company, regardless how smart they were or how good their
idea was, because in order to get going you needed to enter into
business relationships and secure multi-year server and software leasing
contracts. You had to hire a management team to demonstrate to both
investors and vendors that you had what it took to be successful.
All that has changed. What enabled this
change was the emergence of a utility model for computing and storage, an
operating system model that encourages a long-tail of innovation through apps,
plus a ubiquitous network that ties it all together with customers.
Today all you need to build a web service is a credit
card and an Amazon Web Services (AWS) account. Or with one or two engineers you can build
a mobile app for iOS, Android or Windows Phone and get instant distribution through an app store. You can hardly get your hands on $100k in seed funding without
having a working prototype of the thing you’re building.It's
not easy to stand out in a sea of online services and apps, but the cost to
take a shot at it has dropped like a rock in a pond. Anyone can run the
experiment. Access to capital is no longer the primary gating factor when
trying out a software and services idea.
The way we develop and distribute software has radically
changed as a primary function of five pervasive and loosely coupled developments:
open source software, open services and APIs, “the cloud”akahosted computing and storage, primarily Amazon Web Services, mobile platforms with app stores and finally access to the social graph for awareness building and distribution.
While a small amount of effort is still required to set up
and configure the servers and software to run a new service, the vast amount of
work now goes into the development – coding – of the core idea, failing early
and iterating or moving on if the experiment fails.
The blossoming and explosion of web and mobile apps in the
last ten years are a direct consequence of major barriers to innovation disappearing.
The reduced need for capital has had a profound democratizing effect. DropBox,
Angry Birds, Instagram, even Facebook are a few high profile examples where a
few people have created hugely successful applications and services with
minimal amounts of start-up capital. These examples are only a few exceptionally
bright beacons in a vast, seething ocean of creativity and innovation, all
fueled by ubiquitous access to “the cloud” and to simple distribution through
Are we going through a similar transformation in hardware?
A couple of weeks ago Wired ran a story called In the KickstarterFuture, Hardware is the New Software.
They featured two guys who used Kickstarter to raise only $32,000
to manufacture their first batch of an air guitar pick that plugs into the
iPhone. They had raised a little bit of money from angel investors first in order
to design the product, but altogether were able to build and ship their first
product for just over $100,000. This would have been unheard of just a few years
On May 18th a small start-up called Allerta became
the talk of the tech community by setting a new record on the crowd-funding site
KickStarter. They raised an astonishing $10.2 million from individuals who
pre-ordered, and hence funded manufacturing of the $150 Pebble smart-watch. Pebble
is a cool looking Android based smart watch that wirelessly connects to your
smartphone and shows alerts from your phone, including caller ID, email
messages and Facebook notifications. It even has APIs that lets developers
write their own apps that run on your watch.
The Pebble Smart-Watch pitch
Yet the most interesting part of the Pebble story, a part
that most people seem to have missed, was not that they raised more than $10
million. The astonishing thing was they were only trying to raise $250,000!
With only a quarter of a million dollars a small company
with a few young guys – five if I’m not mistaken – were planning to build and ship their
first fully functioning, nicely designed, Android based smart-watches. In fact,
when they posted their pitch to Kickstarter they already had a working
prototype that they had built based on learning from a prior, similar product
called InPulse that they had built for BlackBerry phones.
How is it that a few talented guys – used gender neutrally
of course – with very little capital can now build and sell functioning
hardware products? Is there a “cloud equivalent” that is changing the rules of
the game in hardware too?
While the cloud is an apt metaphor for the “bits of
software”, it is not the right model to describe the “atoms of hardware”. So
perhaps we should be calling what’s happening to hardware an “earth
infrastructure” as opposed to the software “cloud infrastructure”. Something big
is going on with this earth
infrastructure and here are the drivers:
3D printing and
modeling tools – a remarkable revolution is underway in 3D printing.
Physical objects can literally be designed on a laptop and printed as full physical
models that we can touch, feel, and see in the real world. 3D printing
technology is on a roll and it is having an effect on both perception and
reality of how “easy” it has become to produce a physical object. “Just hit
print” and at rapidly falling cost you can pick up a model and see if it
resembles what you had in your mind. This is having a big effect on the speed
and cost of iterating on designs and form-factors.
Maker movements and open
source – The Maker movement today looks a lot like the early open source
software movements. The Maker movement still has a decidedly “hobbyist” flavor, yet growing rapidly in
breadth and depth. Hardware incubators such as Lemon Labs based in SF is
bringing the incubator model that's blossomed in the software space to hardware. And
the open source model is emerging as well. Adruino and Bug Labs are both open source
electronics platforms. Thingiverse is emerging as an interesting repository of digital designs. While a full-on GitHub equivalent in the hardware space has not emerged yet, it’s
likely that this will happen.
Android – while
the lower layers of the operating system has been commoditized for a while,
Android is rapidly making the whole OS stack a commodity. Equally important is
the fact that the success of Android as a mobile phone OS has made it much,
much easier than it was before to get set up and running on virtually any chip
set. All chip vendors have an Android implementation and apps will (more or
less) run on all of them. Just like people used to put a lot of effort into the
hosting infrastructure pre-cloud, only a few companies had access to an OS.
Others would license it. Owning the OS was a significant barrier to entry. Not
so much any more. With Pebble a couple of guys were able to take Android and
get it up and running on their smart watch. The equivalent would have been very
expensive or even impossible even two or three years ago. Today someone wanting
to build a “smart gadget” can focus most of their effort on the user experience
and apps, as opposed to investing heavily in developing or significantly customizing the OS.
Chipsets – from
sensors to CPUs with micro controllers in the middle, it is now possible to get
powerful, fully functional computing devices up and running in record time.
Reference designs that run Android are readily available by all the chip
manufacturers leading to a significant reduction in cost and complexity. Much
like what happened with internet software development, a much larger part of
the development effort can now be focused on creating end-user value, rather
than developing a low level software stack and designing chip sets.
Shenzhen – a
powerful hardware manufacturing eco-system has emerged in Shenzhen, China. And as pointed out in the Wired article, the Chinese manufacturers are now
increasingly willing to take on small start-ups. The competitiveness of the eco-system leads
to constant improvements in quality and pricing. And this also leads to
efficiencies where it is no longer necessary to start with large orders. It has
become possible to start a production run with only a few thousand devices,
again significantly reducing the need for start-up capital to get a consumer
electronics product off the ground.
Two other trends supporting hardware innovation are
access to capital through crowd sourcing services such as Kickstarter and the pervasiveness of ecommerce options, reducing dependencies on traditional
retailers and distribution channels. Even if a product still needs to make it
into traditional retail channels in order to make it big, it is possible to get
going, get market validation and get your first customers by selling direct,
asking your first customers to help promote your products on Facebook and
Twitter, circumventing traditional dependencies on big marketing budgets and distribution
agreements at the beginning of a new product’s life.
The “earth” – as opposed to “cloud”, remember – manufacturing
and distribution infrastructure necessary to support design and manufacturing
of atoms – aka hardware – is becoming very efficient resulting in the barriers
to entry in hardware coming down fast.
What is happening in consumer electronics looks a lot like
what has happened in software in the last ten years. A small team can now make
hyper efficient use of capital and voila, out comes a cool little physical
object, manufactured with earth
infrastructure, running a state of the art operating system with apps, and
obviously connected to a hyper efficient cloudinfrastructure.
If I were a venture capitalist today I’d be investing in next generation earth
The ground did not shake when they walked, nor did they speak in
loud, thunderous voices. They were not even big, scary looking or intimidating. Yet, they are giants. Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to walk, talk and eat in the company
of some legends in the field of photography.
I spent three days at the Nordic Light photo festival, held
annually in Kristiansund on the west coast of Norway. Kristiansund is not objectively a beautiful small town. The old fishing village was first bombed then
burnt to the ground by the Germans in the 1940s. The architecture reflects that it was rebuilt in a hurry shortly after the war, a time when Norway was still very poor and aesthetics were not high on the list of anybody's priorities. The surroundings make up for any beauty the town may lack. Perched on the North Sea and
nestled amongst snow clad mountains, it has become an important link during the last two decades in the supply
and caring of the Norwegian oil-making machine.
The festival is a small, intimate affair that attracts a
wonderful cast of photographers old and new. I was invited to muse about photography through a lens of technology, a decidedly minority perspective at this event. My talk titled "In the future pictures will tell their own stories" was about the future of photography, digital storytelling and the rapid evolution of the medium.
Ubiquity is changing the nature of photography. Everyone carries a camera in our pocket - our mobile phones - and that changes our relationship to photography.
The camera app model has emerged. The ability to develop "camera apps" on the mobile phone platforms has unleashed an exciting long-tail of innovation. Previously innovation was constrained to what a handful of camera (hardware) manufacturers could accomplish with proprietary, closed firmware in their cameras. Not any more.
The connected camera - again enabled with the smart phone - has made photography a social activity. Instant gratification has come to photography. Every picture can instantly be beautified (Instagram), shared and "liked" (Facebook).
Rich context makes the photograph a new medium. Digital photos are increasingly captured together with information about where they are, what direction the camera is pointing, who is in the picture and much more. With all this information it becomes possible to "ask the picture questions" such as "what is that building?", "who is that person?", "was it cold that day?", and much, much more. This is increasingly having an effect on how people view photographs and photography.
Referencing research by the UC Berkeley Sociologist Nancy Van House, I summarized the four key motivators for why people take pictures: 1) Constructing a narrative of our lives. 2) Establishing and maintaining relationships. People are using photographs for communication. 3) Self representation. We use photos to project and image of who we are. 4) Self expression. Photography as art and as pure joy.
Finally, we are on the cusp of computational photography becoming a reality evidenced by recent developments such as the new Nokia Pureview 808, a mobile phone with a 41mega pixel sensor and Lytro, the first consumer camera based on light field technology. Soon cameras will no longer be recording pixels - rows and columns of colored dots - but rather they will record data (light fields) and render photos in real time from that data. Lytro demonstrates the ability to focus an image after it has been taken. This is one of many exciting opportunities that will emerge from the field of computational photography.
But this festival was not about technology and all the wiz
bang things it can do with digital images. It was primarily – and refreshingly for me – about the
art and expression, past and present, of photography.
It’s Friday afternoon and the conversation turns to Ansel
and Minor. Yes, that would be Ansel Adams and Minor White. Abe Frajndlich is telling stories about the first time he met Ansel Adams and the year he lived with Minor
White during the end of White’s life. Abe also gave a colorful presentation about his book Lives I've never lived, a portrait of Minor White.
Friday morning Farzana Wahidy a young Afghani woman showed
pictures she has made of women “behind the veil” and inside the privacy of
their homes in Afghanistan. Farzana shows us a different Afghanistan than the image we see in the west, so often
defined only by war and violence. She tells of women, repressed since the Taliban
took control, and their stories through striking images. She shows pictures
that speak of the same desires, wants and needs that women have throughout the
world. A desire to be seen for who they are and to simply “let their hair down”.
She said that even now when it is possible for women to go out in public without a burkha, many
women have come to feel more safe wearing it. Hiding. Exposed if they don’t. She
speaks of the continuing challenges for women in Afghanistan and her fears that the small
steps forward that have been made will be erased by more conflict and chaos as the
foreign troops withdraw. She tells openly and with a matter of fact tone about
her own fears of being attacked, even killed for the stories she is telling.
Later we hear Greg Gorman telling stories about photographing celebrities, reminiscing about how he and Michael (Jackson) would just hang out in the early
days or how he shot Tom (Cruise) shortly after risky business in the bleachers
of a local baseball field without an entourage of handlers and with nobody bothering them. He speaks of how the days are over, where celebrities were accessible as people and it was possible get close to them and capture intimate personal portraits.
Bruce Davidson with a young student who won the "rising star" competition at the festival.
Bruce Davidson spoke about some of the pictures he has made during
a lifetime of street photography. Wonderful photographs of the streets of New York, a Brooklyn Gang and circus performers from the 50s, the civil rights movement in the sixties and seminal events during each decade till the present. A remembrance of the lives of real people in their every day and during pivotal moments for over a half century, frozen by his lens and captured as if in
Calling the pictures displayed by the
photographers and at
the exhibits dotting the town of Kristiansund stunning would be an
understatement. Yet ironically, the beauty of Nordic Light at the end
of the day turned out to be as much about the dialogue as the photographs.
What made Nordic Light extra special was listening to Mary Ellen Mark in conversation
Davidson. Greg Gorman bantering with the hot Norwegian photographer
Bjørn Opsahl. The conversation I had over dinner with Robert Pledge the founder of Contact Press Images in 1976 with David Burnett, Annie Leibovitz
and other legends. Robert spoke about the the classic photographic
image as being "flat, still and silent". He emphasized the importance of
the "flat, still and silent" image as a means of expression, perhaps
the very opposite of the insta-hipsta-like-share mode that drives so
much of today's thinking and attention as the art-form evolves.
This forum and others like it are important. Nordic Light is a wonderful event and a reminder that we need more dialogue
across boundaries of traditional disciplines and art forms. I love
photography as art and expression, with its rich history and established genres. At the same time photography is rapidly evolving. I cannot wait to see how the next generation photographers will (re-)invent the medium. Being in the company of great photographers who have
dedicated their lives to capturing history, telling stories or simply making
art, was a wonderful treat. I wish that more of the innovators in imaging technology and the new voices in the art and expression of photography would attend, participate in the dialogue and challenge each other as we define and refine the future of the medium. How do we make that happen? How do we broaden the dialogue? I'd love to hear thoughts and ideas.
Sunday morning: outing to the small island of Grip. More great dialogue and opportunity to build lasting connections.
I have become a big fan of Jonathan Harris. Harris is
emerging as the father of online storytelling as a new important meme.
While Harris has been bringing the online story meme to life for several
years, 2012 will be the year that storytelling emerges as a dominant
trend. The user generated content boom that we’ve experienced in the last decade
is a potent pre-cursor to story telling. We have been well trained and
conditioned to express ourselves through posting text, pictures and video. You may in fact think that what we are doing today on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, our
blogs and the incredible plethora of places where we can post, re-post, like
and poke is in fact story telling. It is not.
What is the story behind this photograph? Where was it taken? Who are the people?
How did they end up there? How can we bring the stories behind our posts to life?
Stories are different than posts. A post surely can tell a story, but usually
does not. Likewise, while a good picture can tell a thousand words, most
pictures don’t alone tell a story. Posts may be entertaining or informative
expressing emotion or knowledge or both, but that does not make them stories.
The narrative form – aka stories – requires structure that most posts don’t
have. Wikipedia summarizes what defines a story as follows:
Storytelling requires more deliberation than most of us do today when posting to Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter. That, of course, takes work on behalf of the storyteller. Which leads to the inevitable question: Why now?
I think the story meme is emerging for three reasons:
First, on the demand side of the
equation, people are looking for more meaning and engagement. We’re getting
overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time by the onslaught of short-form text and visual popcorn in the form of stylized photos and
videos of “cute cats”. Lack of context and meaning is resulting in a crappy signal to noise ratio.
Second, on the platform side
pervasive means of distribution and identity management are now in place. We’ve
all – or at lease 850 million of us, and growing – voted for Facebook as the
platform for sharing and expressing ourselves. We can all have an instant audience with
no effort. Number one – information overload – is nevertheless causing
that audience to tire. We want more than cute cats. We are looking for greater personal relevance, authenticity and meaning.
Third and last, miniaturization is
the word. Enabling technologies, exemplified by mobile and increasingly wearable sensors are making it easier than ever to capture and record our lives.
Moreover these technologies are also allowing for the automatic creation of richer context. For
instance, pictures are moving from simply being rows of colored dots, to
becoming rich contextual objects that know where they were taken, know who is in the photo, know the weather, and much more. This rich context is creating new opportunities to simplify and facilitate storytelling.
Our desire for more context and meaning, a free channel of distribution with built in modes of feedback and reinforcement and pervasive access to technologies that create rich context has made the time right. The time is ripe for online storytelling to emerge.
There are a number of interesting and fun examples of online
storytelling. A dominant theme is the use of time to automatically create a
pseudo-narrative structure. I call this the "story of my life” model. Timelines
help people remember their own stories more than actually tell them. Facebook
recently introduce a timeline feature that does more to trigger memories and
personal stories than help tell them. In the same camp is Memolane, small company
and service that also uses time to automatically gather and chronologically
organize your posts across a multitude of online services.
Timehop is also worth a
brief mention as a fun and innovative way to take a daily walk down memory lane.
It sends you a daily emails telling you what you were saying and doing exactly
one year ago.
Yet, the two services that best exemplify the new storytelling
meme are Cowbird and Kickstarter. While very different, they are
my two favorite online applications right now and both are about storytelling.
Kickstarter lets you post a pitch and crowd source money
for a business idea, art project or anything that you can convince an audience
to shell out a few bucks to support. A great pitch uses classic narrative
structure. The site is in my opinion all about telling memorable stories. The
better the story, the better the chance that someone will want to support the
project you're pitching.
Last and certainly not least I return to Jonathan Harris. Cowbird, his latest creation is a wonderful place
for people to tell and explore stories. The application and website is very
simple and very powerful. A story on Cowbird is picture with text
and / or a soundtrack. They enforce a simple aesthetic. They encourage
people to pick keywords to describe their stories in order to create connections and facilitate discovery. They have created something they call “sagas”, presumably
after the old-Norse, that are collections of crowd sourced
stories around a topic. The two currently active sagas are Occupy and First Loves. You are
encouraged to add your personal stories to be included in the saga. Cowbird
stories are public for anyone to experience by default (with a private option
as well). And not everyone can join Cowbird. To
get an invitation you must apply and share why you will be interested in telling stories. I love this site. They
are on to something very deep and interesting.
Stories are integral to how we think, learn and remember. A lot of evidence indicates that we are naturally predisposed towards storytelling. The web is finally
getting to a place where stories can be created and live alongside the enormous
onslaught of posts we are subjected to every day. The
emergence of the online story meme is making the Internet a more human, more
honest and more poetic place.