How the practice of hacking is going mainstream and creating good.
Lost in the iPad hype is the news that Microsoft has sold the rather stunning figure of eight million Kinects in the sixty days since it hit the market. In fact, more Kinects were sold in the fourth quarter than iPads. The product's remarkable user experience is responsible in part for its success. But that isn't the whole story behind Kinect sales number: When Microsoft released the product on November 4th, my friends Phil Torrone and Limor Fried at Ada Fruit Industries offered $3,000 to the first person who could hack the Kinect and post the information to GitHub, a public repository for code. Eleven days later when the hack appeared, officials at Microsoft didn't go nuts. They actually went on NPR to embrace the deed.
Torrone, who is creative director at Adafruit as well as a senior editor of MAKE magazine, says that Microsoft is smart to embrace hacking's benefit as a corporate development tool. "Microsoft quickly realized that user innovation was helping, not hurting, their biggest product launch in recent years," he says. "Within weeks there were dozens of examples of makers, hackers, artists, engineers and tinkerers doing things that even Microsoft didn't expect. I think we'll see an entire industry of commercializing experiments in to games and experiences for Kinect users." (One of the best Kinect hacks, by the way, is this Minority Report demo.)
The Kinect story illustrates the fact that hacking is evolving from a destructive force in business into a creative one that can help companies drive product and brand development. Hacking offers a way for hardware and software developers to build products for the future without incurring high costs of development. A product's long-tail possibility—that is, its shelf life and ability to drive a large number of small transactions over time—grows as it encounters smaller audiences with more niche product specs. Using precious R&D dollars and full-time employment hours to build out these snowflakes would decimate its profitability. Hacking, on the other hand, essentially amplifies a product's users and usage without adding cost to the creator.
Which is why today hacking is evolving to serve the makers. Shapeways is a 3D printing shop which lets people hack industrial production. Build your design on Google Sketch-Up, send it to Shapeways, and have it printed. Or, if you want to commercialize your design, it's as simple as posting it to the site.
Similarly, IKEA hacks is a grassroots effort to transform typical IKEA products into totally new and amazing objects for new uses. Some of the hacks are magnificent, while others fail; all of them point IKEA toward potential new markets, and let customers celebrate the brand by expressing their creativity. This activity—productive in the deepest sense of the word—is being enabled through marketplaces such as Binpress, which is an eBay-like site on which programmers buy and sell source code.
If hackers were the outliers and rogues of the 20th Century, their 21st-century peers are communal problem solvers. Together, these innovators reveal previously unseen opportunities through their inclination to build and make. Products formerly built for the broadest possible segment are now built for a core purpose, and the community can build out and customize from there.
Hacking also is fast becoming a managerial mindset. In today's world, intellectual property is also an intellectual prison: Opening your platform to hacking lets you spread your investment in the future among your customers while engaging them in a deep and honest way—one that keeps them coming back for more. Stickier products and higher profit margins seem reason enough to give hacking a try. You might be amazed at what develops.