We’ve got the power, and we’re comfortable with it. Software to upgrade our smartphone or PC with new features and paid-for apps? Standard procedure. Programmable firmware to update our cameras and TVs? Par for the course. But now, we consumers are about to leap into an exhilarating new territory of next-level customisation and personalisation. The key will be products with direct-to-internet connectivity, combined with programmable hardware and firmware platforms.

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I don’t use the term ‘consumer revolution’ lightly. But the exciting thing for me is that the three crucial building blocks for this seismic shift already exist. They are one: low-cost, low-power connections to the internet. Two: an excess of processing power and reconfigurable logic. And three: features that are added to hardware platforms ‘just in case’. These capabilities will lead us beyond software-based customisation to products that can evolve and adapt to our every whim.

Let’s unpack my thinking, starting with easier, cheaper connectivity. Right now, most consumer products join the internet via a phone or our home Wi-Fi network. This is fine for many simple products, but the universal panacea for the internet of things is that we just get something out of the box and it just works. Amazon first demonstrated the convenience of a direct connection with its Kindle devices, more than a decade ago. Such direct connection is now becoming possible in lower cost devices with modems priced less than $5 and T-Mobile in Germany offering five years’ connection for under €10 all-in.

Easier and cheaper custom silicon

When it comes to processing and reconfigurable logic, we can already glimpse the future. Moore’s Law has insisted that we see more efficient processors that continue to fall in price. This means that hardware developers can use a larger processor than required, to simplify design choices. Intel are already bundling programmable logic blocks with high-end processors for premium data centre applications. This architecture could extend to smaller devices. It has never been cheaper or easier to use custom silicon for a consumer product, so a developer can make exactly the choices they want around architecture and capability.

As for my third point, we have already seen what happens when new features are added to smartphones. People find other uses for them and drive new applications. Accelerometers were added to phones so we could automatically switch between portrait and landscape orientation. Once these were fitted, other use cases were found – such as detecting when the phone was picked up – and the high sales volume led to a massive reduction in price. This means we now see the same type of sensors used in a huge range of applications. Everything from fitness trackers to drones and cow fertility monitors.

So, if we bring these three strands together, we can see a future where we will have hardware platforms that provide permanent connectivity, a surplus of logic and computing power, and low-cost functionality that is deployed without a fully defined use case. If we take this to the extreme, we can see the same hardware block being used for many applications, further driving economies of scale and reducing the barrier to entry for deploying innovative, connected consumer products. In the same way that the smartphone has democratised the development of new applications, such reusable hardware platforms could enable a new wave of applications and use cases.

We are already seeing early examples of these developments, albeit in platforms that can afford to carry a higher hardware cost. One of the most interesting sectors is automotive. At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2020, HARMAN announced its Ignite Marketplace, a cloud-based service that allows users to add and update in-vehicle audio, entertainment and communication features on-demand using over-the-air upgrades. Imagine a world where you can upgrade the audio system on your rental car for $5 a day.

New world of experiences

The combination of connectivity, excess capability and incremental hardware elements will open a new world of personalised experiences. We will be able to offer service-based pricing for hardware solutions, using connectivity to turn features on and off. We will be able to tailor solutions to meet the needs of specific users and evolve those solutions as we learn more about user behaviour and needs.

But perhaps the most exciting prospect will be through economies of scale. In the same way as the smartphone has revolutionised how we interact with the internet, common hardware platforms that provide the three key building blocks can remove the need for bespoke hardware and move us to a world where the innovation comes through service development and software. By reducing hardware variance, we will also see a world where economies of scale can reduce costs to the point that we can add customisation at a price point an order of magnitude below where we are today.

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As with the smartphone, such an approach would also open the opportunity for people to develop new offerings and concepts, honed to the specific needs of a small user group, or even the individual. By removing the blockers of hardware design, manufacture and certification, we will see an explosion of ideas and concepts that will change the world. Through remote configurability and personalisation, we will be able to market test concepts with consumers and shape and evolve to meet their needs. When we talk about a minimum viable product today, it is often in the context of software applications.

At Cambridge Consultants, we foresee a future where the revolution we have experienced in our internet engagement over the past 15 years will also apply to hardware projects. The physical internet will drive the next wholesale change. It isn’t yet possible to identify what the killer application is going to be, but the journey of discovery we are all starting in going to be an adventure. Drop me an email if you’d like to take the conversation further.

Paul Beastall
Director and Head of Strategy

As our Head of Strategy, Paul works with clients across consumer, industrial, government and communications sectors. He has worked in government, start-ups and major corporations, typically at the interface between engineering and commercial functions. His key interest is in the impact of new technologies on the way we live our lives and build new businesses. He strongly believes that the test for innovation is the combination of real impact with technological advancement.