Don't Just Make Content: Hardware Blazes the Way to the Next Big Thing

Startups and Giants Alike Are Increasingly Building Things

By Published on .

Pencil hardware for Paper.
Pencil hardware for Paper.

When you think about the biggest innovations of the past decade -- those that inspired mind-boggling IPOs and buyouts -- most happened in the field of software. With an idea, an internet connection and a text editor, it was possible to develop the next Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Hardware, on the other hand, was a game reserved for the big boys like Apple, Microsoft, Sony. It took years of R&D and serious cash to build prototypes and infrastructure for mass production.

But now, fueled by innovations in prototyping, crowd funding, micro controllers and the declining costs of electronic components, hardware startups are poised for a big run as well.

One example is FiftyThree -- a 20-person app-development team in New York that created the wildly successful Paper app, which is loved for its simplicity. FiftyThree wanted to increase Paper's value without making it more complicated. The answer came in the form of hardware -- a stylus, aptly named Pencil, custom-designed to add functionality without increasing complexity. When paired with the app, you flip your Pencil to the eraser end and swipe away your content. It's an intuitive action that eliminates the steps of sliding open the app's tool drawer and selecting the virtual eraser. This was a hardware innovation that until recently never would have been possible for such a small team.

Even the big boys are showing signs of increased focus on innovating with hardware. Take Google, for example. Starting with search, mail and maps, it continued its software focus with projects like the not-so-successful Wave and the highly-successful Android. These days, it's developing self-driving cars, wearables like Google Glass, paying $3.2 billion for Nest, a maker of thermostats and smoke detectors, and most recently, developing contact lenses that and record the wearer's glucose levels in real time.

What do these trends mean for a marketer, brand or agency? Don't just create content, create things. Work on a restaurant brand? Create coasters that track the weight of a patron's beverage so your staff is automatically alerted for refills. What about a grocery store? Install pedometers on the shopping carts so customers can feel as if they're getting exercise while they shop.

To make things, you'll need to hire people with some new skills. Where once there were X-Acto blades, there may now be soldering irons. A young creative will arrive with his latest Raspberry Pi project instead of a book or reel. Web developers aren't off the hook either. Think, "Your CSS skills are great and all, but how are you with circuitry?"

Software is not dead. It's the underpinning of most of the hardware innovations happening now. But more and more, we must seize the opportunity to become inventors like Edison. If you aren't doing it already, this is the year to start.

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