The Hard Thing About Hardware 📧

Will the rise of AI lead to new consumer hardware?

Brutal. Just brutal. That's the best way to describe David Pierce's review of Humane's new AI Pin for The Verge. And the other reviews of the device aren't much better. While some of the issues stem from the ridiculous and folly PR strategy the company deployed leading up to the launch – think: this changes everything – and more can be chalked up to the device just failing to do what it sets out to do way too often, there's a broader question about the role of hardware in our new AI epoch.

That is to ask: do we really need new hardware at all?

At a higher level still, the answer is yes. While smartphones currently completely and utterly dominate the world and our lives, there will always be a push to figure out "what's next". Apple has built a nearly $3T company on this premise. And that's good, they'll keep pushing such envelopes. But the more granular question here is if AI specifically warrants some sort of new hardware paradigm?

The inverse of this situation is usually the case: we await the next new thing in hardware because such devices may unlock the potential for new services and thus, companies to be built. This obviously happened to an amazing extent with the iPhone and Android. And the Mac and PC before that. (The iPad? Less so. The Apple Watch? No. The Vision Pro? Not yet, perhaps never.) But the thinking here is that AI is the new platform that could unlock not only new software companies, but new hardware ones as well. Hence, Humane. And Rabbit. And whatever Sam Altman and Jony Ive are cooking up. Etc.

(I should note, I'm obviously talking about consumer hardware here – there are a lot of chip companies, for example, being built on the other side of all these equations.)

One problem here is that AI seems likely to permeate basically everything, to some extent. It's perhaps hard to see it now in these early days, but AI may very well be the new website, meaning while there are some things that are built thanks to this new technology layer, it's also just a table-stakes layer that every company and service implements in some fashion. So the real question is what can a specific part of the AI stack do that wasn't possible before, and does a new piece of consumer hardware supercharge such capabilities?

It's one of those questions that is going to be impossible to know for sure without trying. And so in that regard, Humane and other early movers here clearly deserve kudos, for showing what not to do, if nothing else. But my instinct would be that most of the beneficiaries on the consumer hardware side of AI are going to be many of the existing players. Notably, of course, the smartphones. But perhaps even more so, the Apple Watch and AirPods. Devices which are smaller and can benefit from a new computing paradigm that isn't just about an app on a screen.

Many of these current hardware plays, and certainly the devices created by Apple, also have a scale advantage so as to make whatever AI they're using better, faster. And, of course, they have a distribution advantage which allows them to manufacture, ship, and sell hardware in a way that no startup is going to be able to come close to, let alone match.

That's all mildly depressing to hear/think about if you're a startup and/or investor. The big guys win again. But there are perhaps ways to play here, it just likely has to be at such a smaller scale and scope to start. To pick on Humane again – and, to be clear and fair, they were working on their project long before the explosion of ChatGPT onto the scene – I probably wouldn't do an AI pin with a camera to start (and certainly not with a superfluous projector!). I would probably start with a super simple voice-only pin. One that's tied to your phone which you're going to have on you anyway. You tap it, you ask it questions, you get your information, you go about your day.

Yes, an Apple Watch can do something similar now, but the advantage there can be leveraged as a weakness too: because that device can do so much more and is better known as a health tracker and/or notification device, whereas the AI element via Siri is largely a laughing stock, a new AI pin could be billed as just a simple, fun way to interact with AI at a tap. That's it. That's the product. It's almost like a toy. And that's the point. And that's the path.

From there, you add the camera in v2. You eventually add cellular capabilities. You get the picture. (Though ideally not through that projector.) There's a risk it ends up like the Pebble Watch, which was great back in the day – I had one! – and now is sort of lost in time with the rise of the Apple Watch. But startups remain hard, you have to execute, fast. And again, use the big players size against them.

Lastly, I would just say that OpenAI and some of the other model-makers probably have an advantage in executing the above because they can tailor their models to such use cases. But who knows. This is all evolving so rapidly that maybe interacting with a voice bot isn't even that interesting a few months from now. Maybe any consumer hardware play comes from a connected camera. Or yes, Ray-Bans. Or something along those lines. Or maybe something entirely different.

Just start small. And perhaps tangential to something that seems obvious. Like Square back in the day. A credit card swiper that plugs into a headphone jack. Now it's a $50B public company that streams music (to the AI Pin, no less) and builds crypto wallets. We all get distracted at scale, I guess. Not getting distracted by everything you can do can be a huge advantage. Still, hardware is hard.

Sent from London


AI-Music Arms Race: Meet Udio, the Other ChatGPT for Music – Back on the software side of things, last week I linked to Suno, the AI music generator which was all kinds of fun. And this week, of course, there's a new player in town. This is great for consumers, but for investors it's wild. One minute you're investing in image generation, then it's on to music, and then on to video. Dozens of players in each category, constantly shifting and one-upping and changing models and directions. As Harry Potter Balenciaga gives way to C3PO/Gambino.

The Composers of 'X-Men ‘97' Had to Evolve the Show’s Sound – The show, currently streaming on Disney+, is fantastic. It's truly a continuation of the original, which I grew up watching (also available to stream), but subtly updated and better; surprisingly adult-oriented. And the best part, per the link, is the sound. I really think it may be the best theme song of any show, ever. I know that sounds crazy. But it's such an absolute earworm. And the thought put into this aspect alone is rather wild.

Apple Plans to Overhaul Entire Mac Line With AI-Focused M4 Chips – If it feels like Apple just updated their machines to M3 chips, it's because they did. And actually a number of machines are still on M2 chips. But we're apparently already on the verge of an M4 update now as well. Unclear if this is a push from Microsoft, or from the AI arms race, or both. But like AI itself, it's a whirlwind.

My Missives...

Meta’s Only Slightly Better Than Burning Books Plan...
How Tech Giants Cut Corners to Harvest Data for A.I. Meta debated buying a publisher like Simon & Schuster for AI training data... The New York Times Various There is a lot in this NYT report – bylined by five reporters: Cade Metz, Cecilia Kang, Sheera Frenkel, Stuart A. Thompson and

Meta buying a major book publisher to get data for its AI -- is one idea!

Skydance Nears Summit of Paramount
David Ellison Closes In on Hollywood Prize: Paramount GlobalDavid Ellison, movie producer, tennis fanatic and heir to a technology fortune, is on the verge of adding another title: media mogul.BloombergLucas Shaw I’ll admit that I was very skeptical of David Ellison in Hollywood for all the obvious “nepo baby”

Legal battle notwithstanding, Skydance taking over Paramount could be compelling...

‘Snow’ Show No More
Game Of Thrones Jon Snow Spinoff Series No Longer In Development At HBO The Game of Thrones Jon Snow spinoff series is no longer in active development at HBO, Kit Harington confirms in an interview. Screen Rant Adam Bentz We will continue to know nothing... more about Jon Snow, it

Let's give the Jon Snow standalone show room to breathe -- and remake GoT season 8...

IMAX’s Big Picture
Film Fans Keep Splurging on Blockbusters in Imax, So Why Hasn’t Wall Street Gotten on Board?How Imax has quickly become the goldstandard in theatrical experiences.VarietyBrent Lang It’s easy to overthink it. With all the concerns about the future of cinemas – as in the actual buildings where you

IMAX isn't getting the type of "future of cinema" love it should be...


"The whole A.G.I. rhetoric is about creating God. I don’t believe in God. I’m a strong atheist. So I don’t believe in A.G.I."

-- Arthur Mensch, CEO of Mistral, the AI startup seemingly carrying the weight of all of Europe on its back. Well, that's one definition – or non-definition...

Some Thoughts On...

🤖 Apple's search for the "next big thing" starts anew

🍪 Microsoft seems to be feeling confident in new ARM chips...

🎞️ Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis

🦦 Apple's "Ferret" tech could be key to its AI aspirations

🗣️ Alexa is about to shift, will developers be along for the ride?

📌 David Pierce's evisceration of Humane's AI pin...


One Last Thing...

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