Hardware is a stop-gap on the way to a hyper-connected future
It's becoming easier and easier for software companies to dabble in hardware. Kickstarter has allowed companies to attract the funding (and attention) necessary to prototype and manufacture physical goods. Grand St. and Anvil are developing platforms to help startups sell those same products. The line between software and hardware startups has dissolved alongside the boundaries between our physical and digital worlds -- now the only question is whether or not these companies will continue to embrace hardware, or if physical goods are simply a stop-gap between our barely-connected present and our hyper-connected future.
Several startups are using hardware as a way of kickstarting (lowercase "k") their primarily software-focused products: Spark Devices is using its Spark Core, a small device meant to make it easier for hardware makers to connect their products to the Internet, to popularize its Spark Cloud platform. SmartThings developed its SmartThings hub as a way to connect devices to its own cloud offering. Ninja Blocks created "The Ninja Block" as an all-purpose, sensor-equipped device and is now trying to "do for connected devices what Twilio has done for telephony." The list goes on.
"If [the Internet of Things] was all hardware and very little software this revolution would've happened a long time ago," says SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. "What's happening now is that the barriers to creating new hardware are coming down, so that software folks like us can build a thin veneer of hardware that exists on top of the software platform." As connected devices continue to get better and the "hardware universe" expands, he says, SmartThings will stop selling much of its hardware and focus primarily on the software side of the service.
That isn't to say that hardware isn't an important aspect of the Internet of Things. (An Internet of Things without things is just the Internet, after all.) Even those who decided to forgo hardware and focus entirely on the software side of our connected future cite hardware products as the impetus for the rise of Internet-capable devices.
"As mobile phones led the charge to get people unglued from their laptops and unglued to their desktops and out walking around -- albeit still looking down at their smartphone -- it opened people up to the idea that computers aren't just something in your living room or your office," says IFTTT's Lindin Tibbets. "They're literally going to be a piece of everything." And, as more and more companies try to sell us connected appliances and furniture and whatevers, it will fall on software startups to, well, connect them all.
Connected devices are currently hacked-together affairs that force Web-based features onto mundane objects. Devices like the SmartThings hub or the Ninja Block bridge the physical and digital worlds, sure, but the "smart" devices they power will eventually be sold with their own sensors and connected hardware -- the current incarnations are largely stop-gaps and proofs of concept that demonstrate how truly smart devices might work. Then, once these connected devices really catch on, it will fall upon these startups to bring 'em all together and build something more than a cuckoo clock that responds to tweets.
"The only people I know who can make this kind of stuff awesome are the people who made the Web awesome," says Berg CEO Matt Webb. "The power has to be in their hands; the last thing we want is for the incumbents, the really big incumbents, to be deciding how connected products work."
Right now that depends on these companies entering the hardware market and making the case for their connected devices. Think of it as "hardware as marketing," with the understanding that eventually, despite all of the lowered barriers and helpful services allowing companies to operate in the hardware market, it all comes back to software.