Get Ready for Disruption in Mobile Hardware

In spite of the ongoing battles in Washington over the economy, NSA spying, and international policy, I’m absolutely certain that there’s never been a better time to be in tech, particularly in anything mobile. I think we’ll see a bunch of new jobs evolving as we transition into the coming age of hardware disruption.

Project AraIt’s not just about the latest superphones with their multicore processors, miniaturized architecture and ever expanding warehouses of applications. Motorola just announced that it’s been working on Project Ara, a free and open platform for creating highly modular smartphones. Phonebloks, another modular phone visionary, is teaming up with Motorola to push the sector to critical mass.

On its blog, Motorola says its goal is to “drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones. To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.”

Will it pan out? And how will it affect mobile development?

Who’s to say? Motorola has produced solid hardware for decades, but there’s no doubt it’s struggled in the smartphone market compared to Samsung and Apple. This might be its last-ditch effort to stay in the game. It could also be gazing into its crystal ball and creating a whole new hardware ecosystem.

Look outside the mobile market and hardware disruption is running rampant. Developers, programmers and engineers are quickly taking advantage of the latest tools, techniques and readily available production capacities to create radical (or not so) hardware/software/networked products and services. The Nest is a great example of a handful of go-getters looking at a mundane, everyday device (the thermostat) and making it better — while building a new company around the whole effort. Jump on Amazon or walk through any Lowes home improvement store and you’ll see that the Nest is a real, live, functioning product that you can actually buy.

Go Out and Get Some Hardware

So my question: As a mobile developer or designer, are you ready to start learning hardware?

You know you can do it on your own, in your spare time, don’t you?

Of course, if you’re starting from scratch, it might take a while before you’re laying out massively integrated circuits in a CAD package and putting in a custom chip order with Intel. You can get pretty darn close, though, and the cost is extremely modest.

Companies like SparkFun, AdaFruit, and Digi-Key stock thousands of components, from Arduino microcontrollers, to resistors, to voltage regulators to Wi-Fi modules. You can order all of their off-the-shelf parts and have them shipped to your door in a matter of days. I picked up a cellular phone module for about $100 that lets me make calls and send data streams in both directions. That technology simply wasn’t available to a designer working out of his garage, or even in a lab, 10 years ago. After creating your awesome new product you can even pitch it to Sparkfun and maybe get it into their catalog. Make a cool little PC board and they could sell it for you.

The corner RadioShack has resistors, capacitors and various discrete integrated circuits. Most stores also stock copper-clad circuit boards that you can etch, along with the required chemicals. They round out their offering with a reasonable selection of needle-nose pliers, alligator clips and soldering irons. Go out and get some hardware.

When you connect the dots, it’s clear that the future belongs to those interested in stepping out of their current niche and learning radical new skills. I think it’s very motivating that enterprising rainmakers have all the tools they need to engineer their future right now.

If you only work with code, think about taking a basic electronics class or attending a hardware workshop or two. The Processing language, which is cross-platform for Windows, Mac, and Linux is an emerging tool for writing native applications that can interface with Arduinos and their sensors. Processing on Android is still a bit incomplete, as is the Javascript version for Web pages. The Arduino IDE (specifically for coding the Arduino firmware) is based on Processing, so all these parts fit together pretty seamlessly. You might also investigate how Java, Javascript, and Python are catering to the Arduino and microcontroller niche, as well. Then, just add a little imagination and hang on for the coming hardware disruption.

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