Software is Easy. Hardware is Hard: How to Marry the Two for Product Development
I’ll admit right out of the box: nothing is truly easy. After 20 years as CEO and Founder at Surfaceink, and working with everything from Fortune 50 companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Dell, Intel, and Google, to smaller startups in the consumer electronic product design development space, I’ve learned that when comparing hardware and software development for consumer electronics, hardware is hard, and software is easier.
I’m sure this statement will grab the attention and ire of a few software developers and product managers out there.
Here’s why I believe this: Outside of the fact that software requires more human resources, it is much less capital intensive overall and is significantly more forgiving in a post-product launch with over-air updates, and so on.
On the other hand, hardware product developers have to put a stake in the ground with design freezes in an effort to lock in features and be able to cut tools and build boards. These are physical features that require a supply chain several layers deep and involve hundreds (if not thousands) of individuals to coordinate a new product introduction (NPI). Sudden changes or surprises are almost always bad with respect to how it can impact cost, schedule and quality late in the hardware development cycle.
This said, with my experience, I believe there is a way to marry the two much more seamlessly. Hear me out.
Consumers understand hardware
People can see and feel hardware. Software is not a physical item. Thus, one of the challenges many companies face is the reality that people appreciate holding something in their hand. Humans are emotional creatures who can be stirred to actions such as purchasing simply by seeing or holding that sexy piece of hardware. Let’s face it, you’re never going to see software on some rotating platform in the store.
Hardware takes that spotlight and should strive to create a visceral, physical reaction to push that impulse and drive desire for product. Consumers know when a product feels “right” in their hands or in their eyes. An early cross-discipline holistic approach to product hardware development engages industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, layout, and audio engineering enables this vision.
While software will retain and keep the customer, the reality is that it’s the hardware that remains the hook. Think back a number of years to the reactions consumers had when the first iPhone hit the market. Steve Jobs knew how important the look and feel would be to people. Yes, it did deliver. Now today, iPhone aren’t necessarily unique in appearance compared to the competition, yet users struggle to move away from features such as iTunes and the Apple ecosystem. That tie to Apple is because people simply have so much of their digital lives intertwined with the Apple software. The challenges on the software side are now around system level strategies tied to the multiple levels of hooks that retain users and keep them coming back.
Marrying software and hardware
Ensuring that the software effort pushes down into the firmware is important to bridge the hardware features and capabilities to the software user experience. That software ecosystem is fundamental in ensuring a consistent experience where the customer feels happy enough to be hooked to the product overall. (Going back to the iPhone example, if that original eye-appealing phone didn’t work or meet user expectations functionally, or even have the content it had, it’s likely we wouldn’t even be discussing Apple today.)
Many software developers steer clear of the lower levels of the software stack that gets close to the hardware. Why? Well, it is a murky environment with many variables that are non-standard and dependent upon the actual components selected for the hardware board and components.
Thought has to be given to which processors, communications chips, sensors, interfaces or batteries have been selected. Those individual pieces can dictate how much effort is required to make all of those components play well together at the firmware layer before the hardware device as a whole can work appropriately with the operating system (OS).
Facing the challenge
Many new hardware companies discover the hard way (no pun intended) that the developers’ kit (devkit) coming from a chip manufacturer does not really enable them to simply and quickly drop the hardware into the OS, the Cloud or some other intermediate Internet of Things (IoT) to a local ecosystem. Typically, these devkits demonstrate a singular or minimal feature set or partial use-case leaving that “devil is in the details” or 80/20 rule where the 20 percent remaining still requires another 80 percent of the effort.
At Surfaceink, we know it’s important to understand where those time traps might be. There are some companies that won’t give you the time of day because you aren’t one of the big 2 (or even the big 5). Knowing where you can turn for support can truly save your schedule, planning, budget and bottom line.
Yes, hardware is hard, but it is also an amazing barrier to entry and key differentiator. If you find yourself in a hard spot (pun intended here), let’s have a conversation. We can discuss how to successfully marry hardware and software, how each side works and the challenges, schedules, capabilities, and capital requirements, all for a blissful union.