A night with Bug Labs

(written back in 2007)

This morning I received a rather unexpected invite to a Meetup over at the Middlesex Lounge from the people at Bug Labs. They were getting people together to discuss their new product, a modular and open source hardware platform. I figure since they were nice enough to buy us drinks I could return the favor by giving them my thoughts.

For me the idea keeps coming back to Gumstix. Gumstix has been making these tiny tiny computers that are essentially stripped down motherboards that you could run really stripped down versions of linux on. They’re pretty cool, but you really have to be willing to code with minimal support from existing …. anything, which makes them way too much of a time investment for me to want to bother with. So, while the idea of a mini computer that I could hack to do whatever I wanted is tempting, I’ve got too many other projects to screw around with a Gumstix.

Bug Labs is taking a different approach. They’ve built a hardware base that you can, literally, snap things like a camera, gps, touch sensitive screen, etc., given it an OS, thrown on Java (standard edition, not hobble me moble edition), built an eclipse plugin that gives you a development environment that heavily leverages OSGI, built a “Virtual Bug” so that you can test out your code without having to shuttle it to the hardware every time you make a change. The example the kept using is that, when released, you should be able to snap in the video camera, and screen, and code up a working “security system” within a few minutes. Basically just take the API that comes with the camera, write something that detects changes and snaps a pic, and then displays those pics on the screen. I’m not sure if they’ll actually have code that detects changes in the video stream or if you’d have to hack that yourself but the point is that you could, and the framework will be robust enough, and each hardware module will come with a decent enough API, that you won’t have to muck about with all the low level stuff, you’ll be able to just have fun thinking up, and quickly implementing, new ways to use it.

They’re strategy isn’t just limited to the hardware though. They’re putting together a site, and enough built in code on the hardware base, that you’ll be able to plug it in to your computer, and drag apps that other people have written, onto the hardware you plugged in and have it install and be ready to go. It sounds like they’re going to try and really focus on the community and have new hardware modules, and probably core software come from the community instead of the company, which I think is probably the best approach they could take. Another nifty thing is that if someone requests some new hardware module, and enough other people (probably around 200ish) are willing to commit their credit cards to buying the new module, Bug Labs will go off and build it. I would absolutely be willing to plunk down money for an effing bar code scanner, but Delicious Monster has already shown us that you can hack a passable one via a video camera (that’s what Delicious Library uses if you don’t have a bar code scanner).

I think it’s a great idea. I’m probably exactly the target market they’re looking for. I’d be willing to plunk down $200+ dollars for a cool platform with a nice dev environment that’ll let me make cool things. I doubt I’d be willing to part with more than $300 though (for the base unit), not when i can get a whole laptop for $500.

The problem I think they may have, judging by some of the questions asked, is that people will give it bad reviews because it doesn’t have support for their favorite language built in, and doesn’t come with a web browser. These type of suggestions / questions really bug me (no pun intended). It’s like, listen people… this is NOT a consumer device. This is, unquestionably, a device for geeks. And when I say geeks I mean programmers. And when I say programmers I mean people who know that AJAX isn’t a language. You want to write webapps for / with this device? Great, stick a web server on it and query it from your desktop. It’s not a PDA.

Maybe someone will come up with an idea that leverages the hardware to address some vertical market, maybe inventory management tools in warehouses, who knows. I know Bug Labs is hoping someone will but they don’t seem to be betting the company on that.

So, Bug == potential coolness. But don’t hold your breath as it’s going to be end of this year, beginning of next before you can buy one, which makes me wonder why they’re doing these meet-ups now… I think whatever buzz they generate will be long gone by the time it can actually be converted into sales.