On the road from Makers to consumers

It’s time to break with conventional thinking. For decades, the measure of success for semiconductors has been OEM design wins. Most consumers haven’t known, or cared, about what is inside their electronic gadgets, as long as they work. That may be about to change, because a new intermediary is finding its voice – and being heard in high places.

Intel and Apple, in different ways, began challenging the norm by pursuing consumer branding and developing pull-through demand for their parts as drivers of the overall experience. Coupling what people “feel” about their devices with the technology powering them creates an almost unbreakable bond, akin to a religious response. Reaching billions of people has required billions of dollars and high profile advertising campaigns – out of the question for most embedded semiconductor companies.

A new road is being carved across the landscape, paved not with gigantic chips packing billions of transistors delivering a cascade of social chatter and streaming entertainment content. This road is built with ideas carried on small boards and open source software, and a sense of wonder about how the world works, and what we can do to shape it.

Somewhere on that road right now is a big truck, captured in pixels at a stop in June 2014 that may go down as a turning point in the annals of semiconductor evolution.

Overstated? The truck tour is a tried-and-true mechanism for reaching industrial OEMs, taking hands-on demonstrations to cities far from the sources of silicon and software innovation. If we were only talking about embedded design and the industrial IoT, it’d be business as usual, and this would be just another truck with a fancy paint job and a couple of FAEs inside.

But, it’s not. The industrial IoT is wonderful and welcome, however by and of itself it won’t generate the billions of units needed to drive a recovery and restart growth in semiconductors and the economy at-large. That will only come from reaching and capturing consumers with IoT technology, in a big way.

And that, so far, has proven difficult. After all, even industry experts are feverishly debating the name IoT, questioning what applications really fall under the moniker, or what exactly it means. Much like “smart grid” and “mHealth” before it, the term IoT means something in the developer community, but not so much to consumers who don’t yet see a connection between the Internet and how they use everyday things.

A recent SOASTA survey suggests 73% of the US has never heard of the IoT, at least until an interviewer explains it to them. (I’m curious why that number always seems to be 73% no matter the topic, but let’s just say 3 out of 4 – I believe it.) When hearing oral arguments in the Aereo case earlier this year, several US Supreme Court justices issued queries indicating a limited grasp of technology. (Cut to Keyrock: “I’m just a caveman … your modern ways frighten and confuse me.”)

This isn’t a lack of intelligence on their part; it’s a lack of generating the needed visibility on our part. These are the people we all must reach if we have a hope to succeed. Who is going to reach them? Makers, armed with our tools and their ideas. Atmel and other tech firms reaching Washington and the first-ever White House Maker Faire, side by side with people like the star of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, was a milestone in delivering the message to the masses. This goes way beyond the T and E in STEM; remember, the social transformation was driven by youth, and young makers are going to drive the uptake of the consumer IoT.

Why? Well, frankly speaking, they don’t think like engineers – they think like actual, real-life users. I made the comment recently that we need to be careful, the people we are trying to reach can drive smartphones, not (name of other popular maker module redacted … sorry, Arduino didn’t rhyme.) Don’t be distracted by a 17-foot tall mechatronic giraffe with lava lamps for ears and a penchant for partying, or by the Obama crack about we don’t spell “fair” with an ‘e’ in this country. These are people designing things they, and people like them, want to use. More importantly, they will provide the translation of what the new technology can do, renarrating the story from the language of semiconductor companies to the wants of the average consumer.

Makers are the people we need to win with. That idea isn’t lost on Chrysler, who has co-opted the maker movement as their idea in 2014 commercials. Makers care about what is inside, and they are choosing Atmel in droves – in part because Atmel has redirected technological and social media energy into nurturing them, away from just talking to the button-down, risk-adverse, safety-is-job-one industrial community. Intel and other chip suppliers are feverishly trying to catch the wave with makers, moving away from the “e2e” stance that only takes us so far in this next phase.

It’s not for the faint of heart, or the impatient. The industrial IoT is safe, somewhat predictable ground for experienced firms, whereas the consumer IoT still borders on bubble in many minds. The maker movement is now what the university programs were back when to semiconductor firms, taken to the next level and reaching an even wider audience. Design wins with makers now likely won’t show up in the volume shipments column right away – but, they will show up as consumers get the IoT over time.

This post has been republished with permission from SemiWiki.com, where Don Dingee is a featured blogger. It first appeared there on June 19, 2014.

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