After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Hardware hackers are back

Next up: A Formula 1-style device market...

Written while flying from Heathrow to Aberdeen and dispatched from Inverness via a free hotel LAN

When I was 11-years-old an illness that left me bedridden for a few weeks propelled me into electronics through the pages of a boys' own manual. In those days you could get WWII surplus radio equipment by the ton. And so I stumbled into hifi, amateur radio and radio control models with an emphasis on building it yourself - and this meant right down at the component level, winding inductors and cutting cavities.

Today I wonder that I survived this period and that I am still alive. Hardware using 300 to 1000Volts at 1.0Amp was easy to come by and I knew absolutely nothing and learnt the safety code the hard way! Gradually I became more proficient, learned a few things, attended night classes, migrated to the early transistors and found work in a radio and TV shop. This was my apprenticeship for life, the time I gained my green-fingered-ness that was to stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.

Fast-forward 40 years and we are in a world of modules - electronic Legos. In a most cases people no longer have the visual acuity and manual dexterity of our production robots to be able to build anything significant. The number of hardware-capable people has also shrunk and a rising tide of software seems to have taken over. What a different world, far more complex and apparently far more difficult!

In the midst of all this I find people now building their own PCs, PDAs, mobile phones and other systems. Despite the advantages of CAD and mass production there are still people who want something more, or different, and are prepared to get into the hardware, software and systems to make their very own customised devices. Hmm, have we been here before? I think so!

Everything from automobiles to musical instruments has trodden the same path. The mass production item does the job well enough but there are those who want to customise everything. And of course there are the small companies that will do it for you. In the automobile and hifi sectors there are a myriad of companies that produce small runs of specials.

So we might just be entering a new phase where mobiles, PDAs and laptops will come with metaphoric spoilers, lowered suspension, souped-up engines and 1 kilowatt sound systems! Now, what really intrigues me is the possibility of a new feedback loop aka Formula 1 racing style. Build the specials, experiment, invent, learn and then put it into production. It could be a new industry model, for IT at any rate!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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