The nature of hardware is changing. Products are becoming devices — new-generation products that combine the four elements of hardware, software, service, and connection. At a recent consumer electronics show, Philips displayed the first connected coffeemakers, air purifiers, and LED light bulbs. The company plans to open APIs and build developer communities around these and other domestic devices. Cars, too, have already established as a connected utility. In short, each object is becoming connected beyond our current expectations.
This has immediate implications for companies in consumer products, electronics, and business technology sectors, and will force long-term disruptions in optics, biotech, robotics, and elsewhere. Capturing new design skills is essential. Recent opportunities in smartphones illustrate the limitations of current thinking. The availability of 3D printing, the creation of large hardware design communities with open source engineering, new materials for displays (such as printed electronics and quantum dot technology), and the gains of “always-on” consumers are doing little to change the actual form of the smartphone and peripherals such as smart watches, as seen in the recent offerings of major vendors like Apple and Samsung.
Understanding the business model impact is just as critical as the design implications:
- In this new world of devices, products are multifaceted and must integrate hardware, software, services, and connection. The successful designer in future will be able to create compelling usability across all these four elements and will fail if they do not have the right breadth of skills.
- At the same time, the mechanical and industrial engineers who design hardware are creating communities that have characteristics similar to those of the software community in the early days of object oriented computing — modularity, openness, and collaboration. These communities will accelerate hardware innovation the way that developers accelerate software solutions. Hardware innovation is about to become significantly easier, more collaborative, and more dynamic
- This hardware rejuvenation is in part enabled by technological convergence as display technology, 3D printing advances, and sensors all become more capable and cheaper. And underlying this trend is a more profound movement toward programmable materials or citizen-level biotechnology, which will widen the arena for disruption in hardware.
- The expansion of computing into many other areas and the growing availability of design communities are bringing new players into the space. The competition for design skills will be fierce as new opportunities tempt companies from seemingly unlikely origin to move in new directions: paper manufacturers into e-paper (paper as a device), medical firms into printed electronics, media firms (like Disney) into printable optics, and eco-firms into display.