Social Hardware Design

Earlier this week, while attending an electronics class at hacklab.to, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Woodworth, founder of Upverter. Upverter is a local Toronto startup, and Y-Combinator alumi company, that provides a platform for social hardware design. The core of their product is an online tool that allows users to collaboratively design schematic circuits for their projects. Instead of struggling to describe the details I recorded a short demonstration of my own:



Here is the embedded schematic of the project in the video:


Seeing software like this popping up is really cool for several reasons. First of all, the pace of innovation is greatly accelerated by saving all of our work in a common pool. Upverter, like many new web apps, makes everyone’s projects searchable. This means newcomers to the field immediately have a library of thousands of practical examples to learn from. Additionally projects can be accelerated by “forking” other people’s designs. This essentially allows you to use another user’s work as a base from which to create derivative works. Finally, because the entire app is ‘social,’ new techniques can become memes and spread quickly among the product’s users. Disseminating knowledge through this new medium allows the state of the art to advance much more rapidly when compared to traditional ways of spreading knowledge. All of these attributes are over and above the obvious benefits of working in a real-time collaborative editing environment with a live database connected to real parts and manufacturers.

Of course, the downside is that as we migrate more of our applications to the cloud, we begin to lose control of our infrastructure and critical tools. Right now Upverter is a small start-up run by idealistic hackers. You can easily download your work in common formats free of charge. But one must wonder, what happens as their company grows and maximizing profits becomes the dominate motivator? Will they still risk their users migrating to another platform by making your files too easy to retrieve? Will they stop supporting a feature that is crucial to your workflow midway through a project? Will the company go under leaving you without access to your entire library of work? These are just a few of the risks we face by allowing our software to reside in a centralized system far from our local machines.

After seeing projects like Upverter I’m highly enthusiastic about the future. Just as our workflows were revolutionized when we began migrating our tools from physical space onto computers, they will again be revolutionized when we migrate from local harddrives to the web. There is tremendous opportunity for discovering better ways of working but also new risks as we begin to lose control of the tools we rely on.

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