Bug Labs

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New York company that is launching a programmable hardware device, The Bug, run on open source software Bugbase.

Definition

"The modular device offered by Buglabs is, at its core, a full-featured Linux computer known appropriately enough as a 'BUG'. Complete with all the abilities of a PC, the BUG allows budding computing enthusiasts to play hobbyist engineer so they can create a device with their own specifications in mind. A clever idea, considering most consumer products always seem to be lacking that one killer feature. Also a great remedy for those who tend to dream of how they would have built any given device 'better' or differently." (http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/osrc/print.php/3700366)


Description

From Technology Review [1]:

"The Bug would allow users to design their own electronics and customize them however they want. CEO Peter Semmelhack explains that the foundation of the device is the Bugbase, a minicomputer running Linux that users can program. It has ports for up to four device modules, which snap in and out of place. Among the first modules the company expects to offer will be a GPS system, a camera, a motion sensor, and an LCD screen. But it also plans to offer new modules at a rate of about four per quarter, and it's encouraging other manufacturers to follow suit. "We think we're an enabler company," says Jeremy Toeman, who handles marketing for Bug Labs. He says that he sees the company serving as manufacturer and resource for many smaller companies that could grow up around it.

Users of the Bug can put modules together as they see fit and then write or download code to make them operate as required. They are then free to share designs and programs with other users.

The Bugbase will be about the size of an iPhone, and its modules will be about two and a half square inches. Semmelhack says that the product will be truly open source: not only will source code for the software interface be freely available, but so will device schematics." (http://www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_article.aspx?id=19581)


Background

"Semmelhack, who was a hardware hacker in the 1970s, says that he founded the company out of his own yearning for particular devices that, while technologically feasible, weren't on the market. For example, he says, in October 2001, he found himself, as a New York City resident in the wake of September 11, wishing for a GPS device with a wireless modem that could help him keep track of his wife and baby. At the time, he says, there was nothing technologically daunting about such a device; it just wasn't for sale. "It was frustrating," he says. "I couldn't buy it, and I couldn't build it." Nor was this an isolated example: he had a chronic hankering for devices that were situation specific and thus unlikely to produce enough demand to warrant mass manufacture. So, Semmelhack says, he found some engineers and set to work on a prototype of the flexible piece of hardware that he wished he could buy, a device that would empower users to design their own devices. "We don't want to solve all the problems [for them]," he says. "We want to make as many tools as we can."

Semmelhack says that the Bug's design was inspired by the Lego set. Users, he says, should be able to snap pieces in and out without worrying about the device freezing up, and the pieces should be attractive and fun to play with. To that end, the company has developed the Bug module interface, open-source software designed to recognize modules when they are snapped into ports, keep the system from crashing as modules are plugged in or unplugged, and respond to the different power-supply needs of different modules. Because the base has such a sophisticated management job to do, Semmelhack says, "it really is a minicomputer." (http://www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_article.aspx?id=19581)


Examples

"Some of the most interesting examples of what people are building with BugLabs are coming out of the developing world. His group is working with Grameen Foundation in Uganda, and has been talking with open source hackers in Kenya. He tells us about a group in Kenya that’s been building a collective pothole mapping project, using an accelerometer to measure the incidence of a pothole and GPS to map the locations on a collective map." (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009340.html)


Discussion

Ethan Zuckerman reports on a presentation by Peter Semmelhack, on the strategic positioning of the company:


"To change the model so that any business can build devices and so customers can innovate, we need lower barriers to entry. Hardware design needs to work a bit more like software. Innovators in software can use a wealth of open-source software to build their new products using the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/Python/PHP) stack of tools to roll out web services. As a result, innovators in the space are able to start new companies with very little upfront investment, which is challenging existing models of venture capital.

Innovating with hardware is significantly harder. You can’t simply start building a product. Instead, you need to design schematics, put together a bill of materials, design Gerber files to print circuit boards… Beyond that, to successfully design a product, you need to master outsourced supply chains and manage relationships with vendors in many different countries. But there are ways to make this easier - Lego Mindstorms is an amazing systems to build certain types of tools. They’ve open sourced the code and the hardware, and now offer a service called Lego Factory which allows fans to build novel models and pieces and have them produced by Lego’s real-world factory.

The ambitions of BugLabs are similar - they’re building a platform that offers pieces and parts, a mix of software and hardware, designed to be a platform for building new tools. The major opportunity Semmelhack sees is around the wireless/GSM space. He points out that the spread of PCs and phones has allowed wireless networks to grow. But now these markets are pretty thoroughly saturated. Network operators want new devices that use their networks. It’s possible that these things will be built by small companies and consumers, rather than by large manufacturers.

BugLabs is in the right place, Semmelhack believes, because we’re seeing the rise of “extreme personalization”. You can already design your Mini Cooper online or your Nike shoes. With open source apparel manufacturers and open source shoe manufacturers, it’s possible that new, disruptive innovation will come from the bottom up. BugLabs makes money supplying this bottom-up innovation, selling kits to individuals and research groups at companies. The design decision, in some cases, is between soldering something yourself and buying devices from BugLabs, using their technology to scale from an idea to a production level. In this sense, the company is deeply old-school, as they make their money selling atoms to people.

Semmelhack makes it clear that his model isn’t to replace the consumer electronics world, but to add choice to a world that has very little right now. He notes that consumer devices focus on the increase of choice. It’s hard for young consumers to imagine TV that you can’t pause, once they’ve experienced Tivo. Perhaps this choice will extend into the world of consumer devices and people will want the choice between elegant, closed systems and bottom-up innovation." (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009340.html)


More Information

  1. Review by Linux Devices magazine at http://linuxdevices.com/news/NS3871478989.html
  2. Listen to Ken Glimer on Bug Labs