Today I stumbled upon an interesting article from Wired Magazine discussing the rise of the gadget start-up culture. This is an interesting premise considering that most people instantly think of ‘virtual’ products along the lines of Twitter or the now ubiquitous Facebook. I say ‘virtual’ products because they are producing web based products and services that you can’t physically hold in your hand. Web based products have complexities of their own in database creation, scaling, interface design, etc. - but they don’t have the traditional manufacturing issues that physical products do.
When making a physical object you have many different items to deal with such as expensive injection molding tools, physical dimensional tolerances, potential safety and regulatory issues. On top of this you may also still have web based issues such as a site for your company, a web store, and maybe even software to interface with your device. Bigger companies generally have the advantage with all of this stuff because it takes lots of money and lots of resources (people) to manage all of it. The point of the Wired article is that many of those traditional barriers are starting to come down.
The article gives several examples of new companies striving to compete in the arena of consumer electronics such as Roku (makers of the Netflix movie streaming box), Pure Digital (makers of the Flip digital video recorder - just bought by Cisco for $590 million) and the cute and cuddly, yet slick Chumby that are up to similar things. There is also a cottage industry of smaller opensource hardware companies such as Sparkfun, Limor Fried’s Adafruit Industries, and former Make Magazine video producer Bre Pettis’ Makerbot Industries trying to make their way by offering you the tools to create your own hardware and perhaps give you the inspiration for your own gadget start-up.
One of the featured companies in the story was newcomer “Fitbit”. The Fitbit is a cool little widget with a remarkably open development process via the company blog. They give you some great insight to the various stages of the process they have gone through to make their product a reality. From initial concept renderings to vendor sourcing to hardware prototypes and all the way through to packaging design - you can see how it all came together via the blog and the company flickr stream. Very cool stuff.
I’m not going to say whether web based or physical products are harder to develop and get to market - I’m admittedly biased, having worked my entire career thus far in the physical product development world. But I think it’s safe to say that it is a much faster iteration cycle to make changes to a website than an injection molded part. It’s just exciting to see many of these barriers starting to fall so that independent hardware creators can start to move beyond the ‘hobbyist’ phase and start to compete with the big boys.
[Note: Sorry for the link overload today - gadgets are a topic near and dear to my heart and there are lots of people doing cool things out there that people should know about.]