Wednesday, April 20, 2011

And the Maker Shall Inherit the Earth

Nerds are cool. Or, at least, I like to believe that. And like nearly every other belief someone might have, I'm biased in my faith. In this case, because I like to think of myself as a nerd, too.

There's a relatively new term that is becoming popular for a certain kind of nerd: "Maker." A maker is someone with a DIY personality who likes building physical stuff. That could mean a bicycle-powered washing machine. But often it also implies some amount of electronics, which in turn frequently requires some software skills too. IMHO, it is the ultimate combination of three completely different, but complimentary, skills: Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. In this modern age, you can combine those three things and build just about anything you can imagine.

I was born to be a maker. It is in my blood. One of my grandfathers was a machinist who made parts for anything and everything, including the Space Shuttle. My other grandfather was a radioman for the Navy, and later for Western Union. He helped build, develop, and test things like "hot-lines" (yes, at one time that wasn't just a marketing term) and satellite up-links. My father was a mechanic/electrician in the elevator industry, and my mother was a computer programmer.

LEGO sets were obviously standard fare, but my earliest birthday presents as a toddler also included real tools like screwdriver sets. Apparently within hours I'd taken apart the door knob to the basement at Grandma's house. My mom started teaching me the BASIC programming language on an Apple III when I was 6 years old, and my father had taught me to solder by age 9. I was expected to keep my bicycle in good repair myself, and I had to fix the body and the brakes of the wrecked Ford Fiesta my father found at a garage sale before I was ever even allowed to drive it at 16.

These days, there's a perfect storm brewing. Integrated circuits and microchips have advanced to the point where you can build widgets that have really neat capabilities for only a few bucks. Meanwhile, open source software is making it easier and cheaper to make those chips do something useful. It is simply amazing what you can do with a PC and a soldering iron.

But even better stuff is on the way. MIT's "Fab Lab" concept has put together all the tools you need to do real, advanced, electrical, mechanical, and software engineering into a package that fits into a single room and only costs about $50k. They can design a widget, machine the physical parts, build the circuit boards, and develop the software all in the same room. I participated in a tour of the Century College Fab Lab a couple weeks ago, and found myself geeking-out with the students who had built their own CNC mill, long after the tour group had disappeared down the hall. Someday, I want my own Fab Lab in my garage.

But this all remains just a bunch of geeky/nerdy stuff if the "normal humans" out there don't understand what it means. Investors in early-stage companies are now becoming comfortable with what you can achieve rapidly and at low cost with open source software. But hardware device start-ups are still viewed as an incredibly expensive, high risk, and difficult business to launch. And that is becoming less and less true.

This is why I'm positively giddy to see that Wired Magazine's current issue is all about makers. Limor Fried, uber-maker and founder of Adafruit, has a kick-ass picture on the cover. Read the article: she already knows this is going to be the thing that brings the next round of technology innovation and start-ups out of the garage. This revolution is how small businesses can really compete.

I've been a customer of Adafruit for a while now, and we've used some of their products in the process of prototyping and testing the product I'm currently building with FeedLogic. Wired is still a tech magazine, sure. But they're far more "mainstream" than most. Their attention means that the maker phenomenon is gaining significant traction toward popular culture.

TelemetryWeb was built on this philosophy. We want to be part of this ecosystem. One of the remaining hurdles in the world of bringing widgets to market is connecting them to the Internet. Sure, you can build a website that takes some data from a device and shows it on a graph. But things like scalability, availability, security, and real functionality are still really difficult for anything other than a non-software company to achieve. If we can enable small and mid-size companies to bring innovations to market and scale, we can eliminate another huge chunk of the cost in bringing Internet-connected devices to market.

And, most importantly of all, I get to play with some really cool stuff.


  1. Great read. I too would like a fab lab or a maker bot in my garage.

  2. Neal, that was the back outside door with lockset, not the simple basement door knob. And, besides having a lot of scientific and technical knowledge, a great Maker also has to be a really wild artist deep down inside. He has to envision his world before he can create it. Nice thoughts!