Recently, consumer electronics have tended to be more about closing things down then opening them up, but New York-based Adafruit is working to help reverse that trend, and to make it so that people aren’t afraid of what’s inside their devices, and instead become more comfortable with electronics components and the concepts behind how gadgets actually work. Adafruit founder and CEO Limor Fried was on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY today, and talked about how her company is going about achieving that goal.
The mission helps the company generate revenue, by priming an audience early on to become buyers of the components, DIY kits and open-source devices Adafruit sells through its online store. The key is to start young, Fried says, and to take advantage of urges that children already have around exploring their environment and the things around them.
“At a certain age, they just want to be comfortable with it, and everyone here probably liked to take stuff apart,” he said. “That’s how we learn, we take stuff apart and then we learn from them. That’s how software works, too.” With software, we pull apart the code to find out how it’s put together, she said, and we should be doing the same thing with hardware.
“We open the box,” she said, referring to our instincts when young. “The gadgets you have now, tablets and smartphones, theyr’e not easy to open anymore, so we provide that.” The idea is to make sure that if the need to break something down and repair it does arise, we aren’t afraid of it, and we don’t feel like we need eight years of specific education just to replace a broken capacitor.
Adafruit recently launched a video series for children called Circuit Playground to help familiarize them with electronics at a very early age. The company also put out a coloring book for electronics, which you can print out and use under a creative commons license. This is designed less to provide a rigorous early-age electrical engineering education regimen, and more to help get kids comfortable with terms, designs and shapes early on so that they’ll find it easier to pursue that kind of formal training later on. Basically, it’s about planting the seed for a generation of makers to come.
Asked about Adafruit’s identity, and whether it’s an educational organization or a business, Fried said her company is an ‘educational, tutorial company” that then has essentially a gift shop at the end. The model works in the same way that art supply stores functions; you could technically make your own paint, she says, but most people don’t because it’s easier to buy. Budding electronics hobbyists can likewise build their own PCBs, but they instead turn to supply stores and pre-fab components like those supplied by Adafruit. But in the end, the emphasis is on education and open source.
Fried envisions a world where people treat hardware the same way they do software, by mostly leveraging open source tools to quickly start up their own companies. But that change represents a major shift that will require fundamental changes in how we think about hardware, and Adafruit is trying to bring that about starting as early in our educational lives as possible.