Modular Design & Matrix Mass Markets

I’ve been getting asked a lot lately what I think about Google’s new “Project Ara” – their modular smartphone initiative that’s gotten some press lately. Katherine Noyes’ insightful, new article in Fortune magazine is a good case in point.  Is Google crazy for trying this?  Or are we reaching a tipping point – generationally, socially – where the inherent benefits of the approach will appeal in a way that’s economically sustainable?

In a word, yes.  Because, honestly, all great leaders are a little crazy.  And Google has shown it wants to earn that reputation.

There are a number of compelling reasons why a modular approach to a smartphone might catch on, most of which have already been noted elsewhere – choice, flexibility, less e-waste, more room for community involvement.  My company, Bug Labs, has been a pioneer in this space since 2006.  We started initially with modular hardware and have since evolved our thinking to include modular software.  For example, we recently launched dweet™  and freeboard™ – two, simple, modular apps meant to make building “Internet of Things” products faster and easier.  But there is another aspect of this discussion that bears consideration.

For the most part,  smart phones are a mass market consumer device.  The huge volumes sold to date have all gone to folks like you and me.  We use them as-is, exactly in the manner designed, for our own personal lives and activities.  And that model has been an enormous success.  However, many people are now using their own personal phones at work too.  So many of us are doing it that a brand new acronym has been invented – B.Y.O.D. – Bring Your Own Device.

In essence, BYOD means that instead of using that old-school, company issued Blackberry, we are instead using our personal iPhone or Android device, irrespective of the corporate rules.  As disruptive as it is, smart organizations aren’t fighting the trend.  They are leveraging the investments their employees are making in new technology.  For Project Ara, BYOD could be a godsend.

A key benefit of a modular device is the ability to change its “personality” by simple changing some of the key components that make up the phone.   Today, applications are the only way we can modify the behavior of our phones to participate in any kind of BYOD activity.  Those applications, in turn, use whatever sensors, buttons, interfaces that are built-in to the phone.  Smartphone application designers are only able to use what’s provided by the mass market manufacturers.  This is a pretty serious constraint.

Imagine a situation where businesses could write specific, high-value applications that take advantage of your phone with a special, company-provided module installed.  For example, maybe it would make sense to swap out the normal camera for a faster, more accurate, barcode reader.   Or maybe, for the job you’re on, an infrared thermometer would be super helpful.  Neither of those components come with the “standard issue” phone.  But they could be made available by an employer, or customer, or partner.  The modularity, in this model, is multi-tenant – that is, the advantages extend far beyond any one individual and their own module collection.  It’s a little like, you own a cup.  What gets poured into it changes over time.  Sometimes you fill it, other times someone else does.

With this line of thinking, the idea of a mass market changes.  Specifically, the word “mass” takes on a different meaning.  Instead of it meaning a mass quantity of the same, exact thing each owned by single owner, it represents a mass matrix of potential module combinations owned by a similar mass matrix of individuals and/or organizations.  This is a huge change.  And it unlocks a similarly huge opportunity because it is a raw, untouched area for innovation.  It will require serious commitment and appetite for risk (and the pocketbook to persevere).  I think Google may be the right company to lead the way.

One thing worth noting however.  While this approach eliminates the “tyranny of the the killer app” it replaces it with another equally troublesome issue —> the “tyranny of choice”.  But that’s the subject of another blog post ;-)

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Social Machines - Book cover - smallMy first book – Social Machines (Wiley & Sons) goes on sale today.  It’s an exciting moment – one that’s been in the works for nearly a year.  Writing a book is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  But now that it’s out it feels like it wasn’t so bad.  Which must mean I need to start my second one!

The book focuses squarely on product design for the Internet of Things — or if you’re Cisco, the “Internet of Everything” or GE, the “Industrial Internet”.   Whatever the terminology, it means, in essence, anything connected to the Internet that’s not a laptop, tablet or smartphone.  There has been a rapidly expanding collection of examples – from the Nike+ fitness system, to the Nest connected thermostat, to the Audi Connect automobile.  If you are the designer/developer of virtually any product today, chances are good you have thought about what would happen if you connected it to a network.  And if you haven’t, you almost certainly will in the coming year.  At my company Bug Labs, we are having our busiest year ever working with companies of all sizes helping innovate in these exploding new markets.

Social Machines was written explicitly for answering the key questions that arise when you take previously isolated objects and connect them to the Internet.    For example, it may surprise you to discover that when you develop a connected/social device you suddenly have two types of users to engage and satisfy – customers and developers.  These are completely different experiences.   What are the major design considerations when you are designing a social product?  And why is that valuable at all?  Connecting your product to the Internet opens up a world of innovative possibilities.  Social Machines is your guide.

If you are interested in taking a peak you can download the introductory chapter for free from here.  If you’d like to purchase the book, please use one of these resellers – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million or for bulk purchases, 800CEOread.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  Feel free to email me at peter (a)

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Data is the New Steel

Lots of people have been saying that “data is the new oil”.  Data flows through networks, powers applications, lubricates markets – the analogy makes perfect sense.  But it occurred to me recently that data is also taking on a more structural feel.  Instead of data being simply a flow, it’s feeling more like a foundation.  My favorite example is Zynga which was built on top of Facebook which was built on top of you and me.  Personal data is the oil for Facebook, but Facebook data is the steel for Zynga.  It’s the resource they used to build their business.  Twilio was the steel which GroupMe used to build its application.
Data is the new steel.
I like the analogy because it helps me think about things like Big Data in new ways.  John D became the richest man in history peddling oil.  But the #2 guy didn’t do too badly either.  His name was Andrew Carnegie and he was all about steel.  I’ll write more about this theme in the coming days.

Lots of people have been saying that “data is the new oil”.  Data flows through networks, powers applications, lubricates markets – the analogy makes perfect sense.  But it occurred to me recently that data is also taking on a more structural feel.  Instead of data being simply a flow, it’s feeling more like a foundation.  My favorite example is Zynga which was built on top of Facebook which was built on top of you and me.  Personal data is the oil for Facebook, but Facebook data was the steel for Zynga.  It’s the resource they used to build their business.  Twilio data was the steel which GroupMe used to build its application.   There are many examples.

Data is the new steel.

I like the analogy because it helps me think about concepts like Big Data in new ways.  It helps me recognize that analytics are not the only useful applications when confronted with massive data quantities.  John D became the richest man in history peddling oil.  But the #2 guy didn’t do too badly either.  His name was Andrew Carnegie and he was all about steel.  I’ll write more about this theme in the coming days.

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The Everlasting Gobstopper Syndrome

everlasting gobstopper

Maybe I’m getting old and the lens through which I see life is starting to skew but I’ve noticed something recently and it’s starting to wear on me.  The beauty, the promise, the implied immortality of “new” is just not cutting it anymore.  For me, the last few years, Apple has been the model.  All of their products and services seemed to come directly from Mt Olympus.  They were from “on high”.  Going to their stores was a pilgrimage to the holy land of product perfection.

The trouble is – Apple is not new anymore.  They are old.  There is a day, right around the corner really, where Apple won’t be what it is now.  Where it stumbles or just plain succumbs to the intensity of its own raging success.  Like a dying star it expands and engulfs but then collapses.

As a culture we prize the “new” in a way that can only be considered crazy – and I’m no exception.  What is it about “new” and “shiny”?  Is it our longing to find something eternal?  The fountain of youth?  As I see cycle after cycle of this behavior it becomes clear that everyone is really just treading water.  Newness becomes a non-virtuous cycle which leads nowhere.  How could it?  The quality of “new” exists only for a moment. This insatiable thirst for what we can never have – the everlasting gobstopper – is really a form of torture that we inflict on ourselves.  I guess this is what is wearing to me.

What is the best way to build a business in this environment?  Indeed, what is the definition of a business?  It seems like the “new” premium is pushing everyone to build businesses that create and produce shiny new “stuff” at a rate that is an end in itself.  Kickstarter!!  New is a quality that sells, versus something more boring like – reliable or solid or dependable (I can see your eyes glazing over just reading those words).  But ask yourself why?  I love woodworking and the tools I most cherish are those that have been around 100 years.  I can imagine bequeathing an old hand plane to my grandson.  But an iPhone?  Uh….see my point?  Why?  They are both a form of technology.  Maybe we’re all too vain.

This is why I like poetry, music and dance.  They consume nothing but time.  Are forever new.  Live performances are like shadows – uncatchable.  They are, in the end, like life – always just beyond our control.  Things, like the iPad I’m writing this on, are pre-extinct.  And once you see that for what it is, the allure of new takes on a different meaning.  A sadder one.   I want to believe in the promise of the forever new.  It’s just not how life is.  And the realization of this has given me a sense of new freedom.  Which, on balance, makes me far more content.

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How Wireless Carriers are Obstacles to Innovation

I won’t be getting any fan mail from the wireless carriers on this one but I feel it’s my duty to share what I think is the truth about wireless product innovation today.  It’s too hard and doesn’t have to be.

Carriers are in the networking business – that is, connecting things together.  And more and more today they’re recognizing they need to offer more than just that if they hope to keep their customers, and Wall St., happy.  No one wants to become the proverbial “dumb pipe”.

What am I talking about?  Ask yourself this question.  When was the last time you went into any wireless carrier’s retail or web store, and were simply blown away by the variety of new devices you had no idea existed?   I’m not talking about new versions of existing categories – smart phones, tablets, etc.  I’m talking about the devices that seriously surprise and delight you.

Now compare this to say, the Apple AppStore, with over 700,000 applications available for download.  Hmmm.  See the difference?  You’ll say I’m comparing Apples and oranges and it’s true to an extent.  But here’s where the analogy applies perfectly.  Apple bends over backwards to provide literally everything necessary to make application development and distribution a complete no-brainer for the innovator.  They invest MILLIONS of dollars in their developer ecosystem – tools, education, documentation, networking, events, the list goes on.  Before Apple, Microsoft did the same thing, and still does, putting the independent software developer at the center of their existence.  The results, in both cases, speak for themselves.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both companies are now among the most valuable on the planet.  The model works.

To be fair, the top wireless carriers of the world are starting to make the right moves.  But they are baby steps.  They need to recognize that their future is tightly bound to the growing population of hardware and software innovators of the world.  For example, why do they continue to believe that only the largest OEMs can provide products that their customers want and need?  Great innovations lay in wait in communities everywhere.  They spend the vast majority of their resources on their network infrastructure, which makes sense – if you’re a carrier.  But Apple and Microsoft also have massive investments in operating systems (their infrastructure) and STILL invest heavily in encouraging 3rd party innovation on that infrastructure.

These are my top FIVE recommendations to any network owner:

1 – Create MUCH more comprehensive developer programs around encouraging and supporting innovation on your networks – software AND hardware.

2 – Set a GOAL of tripling the size of your developer community by the end of 2012.

2 – STOP TAXING innovators with your absurd certification processes.  Make it easy to use your network in way that’s affordable, reliable and safe for your network’s performance (yes – I do understand that you need to protect it).  Right now, just this part alone stops many (most?) innovators in their tracks.

- RECOGNIZE that your future depends on not finding THE next Steve Jobs but finding the next 2,000.

- LOVE your developer communities and be respectful of what you receive in return.

The wireless carriers have everything they need to pull this off.  Let’s hope they have the will too.

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Network Owners Face Daunting Choice

If you own a network today, of any kind, wireless or wired, you have some important choices to make.  We’ve all heard the proverbial “we don’t want to be just a dumb pipe”.  It’s the party line.  But ask yourself, when was the last time your phone or cable provider did something truly innovative and valuable for you?  If you’re like most people, you’re still just staring blankly at this blog post.  To be fair, there have been some exceptions (visual voicemail was cool, and there are some creative new pricing plans…), but for the most part, if asked, just about 100% of us would never put our network providers on the list of Top Innovators who materially help us live better lives.

So what’s the choice I’m talking about in the title?  It’s this.  If you are a network owner, what you care about most is monetizing your network investments.  The ONLY way to do this is to get people to USE it.  To make matters worse, your worlds are moving inexorably to pure IP-based architectures leveling playing fields and causing even further dumb-pipe-itis.  What do you do to inspire usage?  Real usage.  Sustainable, growing and profitable usage?

Up till now it’s looked like this – go ask the big OEMs what they have in their product pipeline, stick it in your store and hope+pray customers like it.  You cringe when even thinking about this process because historically customers have been completely underwhelmed by what you’ve proffered.  Some companies have tried their hand at designing and building their own products.  But these have also been, for the most part, flops.

What’s the answer?  Open up your network to innovators. Give developers – ALL developers, hardware and software – a reason to love you.  A reason to talk about you at cocktail parties and spread the word.  And I don’t mean just putting up a fancy website saying you “love innovators”.  I’m saying provide them with the all tools they need to surprise, inspire and delight you.  Create a home for them that’s equipped with a fully stocked kitchen, foosball table and cool t-shirts.  Invite them to help.  Prove you are sincere.  Let THEM figure out how to best use your network.  Let THEM shine the light on the path forward.  In fact, it might not be ONE path.  It may be hundreds.  But the fact that you provide the best, most awesome, ecosystem for building, supporting and deploying new things adds immeasurable value to your investments.  And your community of innovators won’t hold it against you.  You’re a business for goodness sake.  Apple did not write the applications in their AppStore.  Their community did.  And they’ve benefitted to the tune of over 7 BILLION downloads and a sky high stock price.

So, to me, it’s open up or fizzle out.  I know it sounds like a threat but it’s not.  It’s just a prediction.  The world is not moving towards monolithic, one-size-fits-all solutions.  It’s moving in the exact opposite direction.  Gone are the days where you can dictate just about anything your customers.  They will leave you.  You need to either embrace that or perish.  You only need to look at what’s happened to the media world over the past 10 years to understand what’s coming.

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Good Nuff Electronics

The title proves the point.  My spell checker squealed but you could read it just fine and understand exactly what I meant.  Nuff was good enough.

Clayton Christiansen, in his famous book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” argues that disruptive innovations are often far from perfect products.  In fact, they are so unremarkable that in many cases they’re totally ignored by the companies whose products are, in fact, most vulnerable to the coming storm.  My favorite example from the book (I’m not alone – it’s used all the time) is how Sony’s simple, crappy little battery powered transistor radio took on the mighty RCA.  Obviously, that wasn’t Sony’s intent at the beginning.  But the transistor vs. vacuum tube battle that ensued is where the story resides.   The sound quality of Sony’s products did not, in any way, measure up to RCA’s.  But they were cheaper, portable and good nuff.  I won’t try to paraphrase the whole story because it’s worth getting the book and reading it thoroughly.  But suffice to say that, in the end, Sony completely disrupted RCA.  And it isn’t the only example.  There are many.  And the lessons are the same.  Perfection should not be the goal when thinking about disruption.  Speed, agility and a willingness to take risks are more important.

We’ve been trained over the past several decades to believe that electronics come to us in certain, basically immutable ways.  We like things hermetically sealed, cheap and ready to go.   Lately, Steve Jobs has dramatically raised the bar and forced CE vendors to match a breathtaking level of quality and workmanship to even get in the game.  And that’s a good thing.  How could I possibly argue against it.  But it’s not necessary for the vast majority of devices one would deem useful.   And for Apple, it could actually become a vulnerability.

ATT Dev Conf snapFor example, take the carriers’ latest smartphone offerings.  You’ll notice that they all look EXACTLY ALIKE.  I would argue that they ARE exactly alike.   And tablets?  There were something like 50 new tablets announced at CES this year and guess what?  They are all identical.  Check out this picture I snapped at the AT&T Dev Conference.  Er – if I’m a hardware vendor that’s a very scary slide.  There is literally no way to stand out.  All the value goes to the software and content guys.

When everyone starts to look and act the same, the time is ripe for disruptive innovation.  Mr. Jobs and Co. have convinced everyone that the future looks like the iPhone and iPad (and whatever else they bless in the coming quarters).  But if you lift your head a bit you will recognize that that’s bulls**t.  It’s like believing that Facebook will become the new Internet.  Uh.  No.

Electronics design needs energetic new thinking.  I would argue that the Internet has radically changed many industries but it has not worked its magic on electronic product design.  You can trace today’s smartphones and gee-whiz gizmos back to the Palm Pilot and Newton.  Seriously.  They are more beautiful and cool and wireless, blah, but are essentially the same.  We have yet to see a new generation of truly network-inspired products.  Devices that do to the world of electronics what Amazon and eBay and Google did to the world of information.  And the truth is, the innovators who will make the revolution happen are not the companies we currently know and love.  It will be a raft of newcomers.  And they will innovate in completely new ways using open source everything, leveraging net-connectedness in new/novel ways, and solve tech problems that have been thorns in our sides for decades – health care, energy management, home automation, the list goes on.

I’ll end my screed here.  But for the record, I think we (and I mean anyone remotely interested in making progress in this space – inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, etc) desperately need to recognize the opportunities that are available.   We just have to stop the group-think, leverage the new technologies that are now coming available for rapid innovation and productization and get on with the 21st century.   We need to try new things.  Make things good nuff to disrupt the status quo.  Think like Sony did in 1955.   And remember, almost a hundred years ago, cars were being called motorized wagons and airplanes hadn’t been invented :)

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2011 Top Ten Predictions

Screen shot 2011-01-25 at 9.14.12 PM1 – Mobile security – the mobile world is about as secure as the desktop world was ten years ago.  If companies are going to start devoting real resources to exploring/exploiting mobile opportunities, this will need to get addressed.  2011 is the year this starts in earnest.

2 – Cars – Like last year I think automobiles (heck anything with wheels) + wireless technologies represent an enormous opportunity for innovation for all the reasons you can think of – safety, energy management, convenience, etc etc.  Ford’s Sync product line is just the tip of the iceberg.

3 – Home automation continues to suck – this market is always “about to be huge” and will continue to be in 2011.  That said, some interesting new directions may emerge and, thank God, they won’t look anything like what’s come before.  What will be different?  Interoperability, open architectures, web interfaces and Android to name a few.

4 – Health care continues to suck – see #3. But in this case it’s worse because of all the big money invested in the status quo.  But 2011 should see insurance companies finally getting serious about helping their customers leave healthier lives via technology (and I don’t mean Health Buddy and/or similar).

5 – M2M shows signs of life – this decades old set of markets could hold the keys to the kingdom for wireless carriers worldwide looking for ways to increase data traffic and drive new interest in 4G/LTE.

6 – Mobile enterprise finally becomes real – After a ten year gestation period the year of the mobile enterprise is upon us.  Everyone wants more than just email on their corporate device and we can all thank St. Jobs for that.  Enterprise applications (and the stores that support them) will help drive this segment in a big way.

7 – People start to realize that Facebook is more limiting than freeing – ok, a long shot, but come on.  At some point people will start to realize this is just AOL v2.  I suppose I’m acting my age (old).

8 – LBS services have hard time scaling to the big time – reason?  See #1 above.  But not security like https, etc.  In this case we’re talking about trust – as in are-you-where-you-say-you-are (vs a piece of software duping the system)?  2011 will see the emergence of technologies that help support trusted mobile transactions – applications that create fully audit-able data trails.

9 – MS changes leadership – this is a holder over from last year.  But this year I really mean it.  I think MS will need to change CEOs if it’s going to get back on a leadership trajectory.  Who will it be?  My crystal ball is cloudy on that one.

10 – VCs start investing in hardware companies again – long shot, 4 sure.  But I think there are many, many opportunities in this area and the contrarian in me thinks that it makes sense to invest where no one currently is (and I do mean no one!).

We’ll see how well I did in a few months.  I didn’t do too bad last year. :)

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2010 Predictions – How’d I Do?!

gradeLast year, I went public with my first ever “Top Ten Predictions” list.   And now for the first time ever I get to grade how I did.  All in all, I think I did ok.  I rate myself on a scale of 1-10 below.

1 – Autos are the next “killer app” – ok, I probably went overboard with the hyperbole but I wasn’t totally wrong.  I think it’s safe to say that just about every car maker is now seriously looking at what Ford has accomplished with their Sync product line.  The logic for putting these “mobile devices” on line is as compelling as ever.  Score – 7

2 – Microsoft becomes cool again – Again, while I overplayed it I was sort of right – Bing is doing well.  Windows 7 is actually sort of useable and xBox continues to impress.  However, the dark clouds hanging over Redmond persist.  Score – 7

3 – DIY goes mainstream – Almost!  We’re getting there.  My favorite new indicator is Nova’s new show “Making Stuff” with David Pogue.  There was also the awesome, sold out Open Hardware Summit that Bug Labs helped organize.  But neither are good examples of true mainstream.  Score – 5

4 – US carriers realize they need to support 3rd party innovation – I think this one was spot on and I’ll use Bug Labs’ signing of every major US carrier to strategic partnership agreements as proof. – Score – 9

5 – Google’s Android has major growing pains – meh.  I think their gains outweighed any pains.  Sure there is some complaining about fragmentation, etc. but for the most part they hit it out of the park in 2010. – Score – 2

6 – The government embraces Open Source – I feel pretty good about this one.  From success of GOSCON and Tim O’Reilly’s Gov 2.0 and the latest Open Government Initiative from the White House, I think we’re entering an era where government will seriously consider how openness (not just open source software) are beneficial to everyone.  Score – 8

7 – Apple continues to kick ass - that one was a bit of a no-brainer.  Why didn’t I buy more of their stock??  Score – 10

8 – Sony continues to produce nothing of interest – another safe bet.  Score 10

9 – Obama gets more gray hair – have you seen his pictures lately??  Score 9

10 – Peter (me) gets on stage with guitar – ahem, no, I didn’t do that.  However, I did compose a string quintet and had it played in my apartment for my birthday (thanks to my lovely wife!). – Score 4

So all in all I averaged a (self-graded) score of 72.  Clearly needs work.  So – let’s try again for 2011!  Please see my next post.

Photo credit – wonderferret

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Open Hardware Summit!

OHS_Logo_smI am super excited to announce that my company Bug Labs will be hosting, along with partners Creative Commons, Maker Faire, Little Bits, eyebeam and NYSCI,  what I think is the world’s first conference devoted solely to the open source hardware movement.  We’re calling it the Open Hardware Summit and you are cordially invited to get involved.  Submit an idea for a talk or panel, help us organize the event or raise awareness, become a sponsor, all of the above!  We’ll be holding it on Sept 23 at the World Fair grounds in Queens the day before the big Maker Faire event.  Please go check out the web site and spread the word!  This is going to be an important event!

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