Jon Callaghan of True Ventures has written an excellent article where he argues that a new hardware revolution is upon us, and that it is destined to be a game-changer. It's a great piece, and well worth a read.
Here is an excerpt:
Almost exactly six years ago, Apple launched the first iPhone. It was a small device that many dismissed as a toy. In reality Steve put a supercomputer in our pocket — we just didn’t know it. And like super computers before, it came with immense capabilities and brought about an opportunity to rethink, reimagine and reinvent how we live, work, create and consume. Today, smartphones (and tablet devices) sell by the hundreds of millions.
Cheap processors, cheaper memory, and even cheaper sensors means it’s a great time for people who like to tinker with hardware to tinker. Platforms like Kickstarter and Quirky de-risk production, identify features and customers, and do so before the first tool is made. Wireless broadband is ubiquitous, and military grade technology is available at RadioShack. The manufacture and design of products and devices has changed forever. Building factories is no longer a prerequisite for building products. Add to the mix emergent technologies such as 3D printing and inexpensive laser cutters that put prototyping capabilities onto a kitchen table, and we suddenly are facing an extraordinary revolution in hardware-based innovation.
I wholeheartedly agree with his assertions, but I do want to put a bow around one of Jon's most salient points; namely, that building hardware is hard. Make that HARD with capital letters.
Specifically, there are two key 'gotchas' about the hardware business that most aspiring entrepreneurs get blindsided by.
Before I get into them, let me establish my "hardware chops." In my career, I have:
- Hand-built my own hardware systems (CafeNet: Internet access terminals)
- Worked in the network hardware business (Tribe Communications: Internet infrastructure)
- Invested in hardware startups (Whistle Communications: Internet appliances)
- Advised hardware startups (Square Connect: Universal remote control gateways)
- Founded a hardware device management software company (Rapid Logic: unified device management tools)
- Built a cross-platform system for creating native mobile apps (Unicorn Labs)
In other words, my take is based upon a 360-degree perspective on the hardware business, and it's lifecycle from a make, bake and take to market perspective.So why hardware is so...HARD?
One is the simple truth that hardware guys speak a different language and come from a different planet than software guys, and vice versa.
This generally translates into each party trying to abstract out the other, which often leads to lowest common denominator solutions, or worse, products where the target user credulously wonders, "Were these things designed to work TOGETHER, or just to irritate the user?"
The next wave implies developers having a sense of there being one composite whole (hardware, software, service, tools, manageability), and the team, culture and ecosystem being oriented accordingly. One can see this dynamic at work in Apple's iOS vs. Google's Android.
Two is that specifically because you are dealing with physical devices (as opposed to the wholly digital 1s and 0s of software), the question of channels for discovery, selling, distribution and support are inordinately more complex, with many more points of failure, than with software alone.
This underscores an indelible truth about indirect channels (like retail, amazon, etc.) that many fail to grok; namely, that the channel can NOT solve your selling and support challenges until YOU figure them out first. It's like trying to tell the blind how to see when you can't see yourself.
Food for thought.
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- Innovation, Inevitability and Why R&D is So Hard