The future is modular: IoT, Microservices and music gear

The modular synthesizer revival can teach us a lot about the future of digital technology.

Discussion of digital technology often centers on convergence—with everything becoming available through computers, then cell phones and soon, perhaps, wearable devices. While these developments are ongoing, the Internet of Things (IoT) is starting to diverge the delivery of digital tech across a vast range of devices. My recent experiences have made it clear that, amid these complex (even contradictory) developments, one thing remains constant: software.

Modular music making

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how Ableton’s Max for Live (M4L) product was helping electronic music producers rewrite the company’s core software. As a fan of Cycling 74’s Max application, I was delighted to see the Max programming interface becoming a part of Ableton’s ubiquitous music production and performance platform. Live defines the current state of electronic music practice and M4L seemed to blow the future possibilities wide open.

My enthusiasm was based on a conviction that the future will be defined by software. While this conviction remains, I recently stopped using Max and began building a modular synthesizer in the popular Eurorack standard. Modular is often associated with the analog 1970s, but recent growth in digital Eurorack modules has seemed very much in line with the accelerating tendency for a good deal of truly cutting-edge tech to appear in specialized devices.

Eurorack can’t provide nearly the breadth of features offered by Live and other digital audio workstations (DAW). Still, it is increasingly able to deliver key DAW functions in a hardware format that many users find more tactile, intuitive and inspiring than a windows-based OS. For me, the tipping point was the appearance of granular synthesis modules able to execute a kind of complex digital processing previously the undisputed territory of computers alone.

Smart lawnmowers and life offline

Just as the Eurorack cottage industry could theoretically challenge Ableton’s market dominance by putting highly sophisticated firmware (aka embedded software) in dedicated hardware gadgets, IoT seems set to move a great deal of software usage away from laptops, tablets etc. and into dedicated devices. Still, it could be argued this is a tenuous analogy as (to the best of my knowledge) there are currently no Eurorack modules that connect to the Internet.

In fact, although the Internet may be vital to how most digital “things” function, it isn’t necessary for all of them. A colleague recently told me about visiting a Scandinavian suburb where every house had a Roomba-style mower pruning its lawn, which he took as a sign of IoT’s proliferation. But he admitted these devices didn’t really require Internet connection, just some very sophisticated firmware. The key to post-convergence tech isn’t connectivity—it’s software.

Modularity on the backend

Beyond the consumer sphere, it seems modularity will also be an important concept in the future of enterprise IT and software development. This is not just because much of IoT will actually exist in the “Industrial Internet” but also because of the role Microservices will play in how enterprise architectures and applications are built. Matt McLarty, Enterprise Architect & Vice President of the API Academy at CA Technologies, flagged up the importance of modularity in Microservices in a recent API Academy blog post.

Modularity could also prove to be an increasingly important concept for business managers taking digital products to market. Think of the enthusiasm leading Silicon Valley figures have for “unbundling” functionality from monolithic products and services. With these trends in their early stages, it’s still hard to make accurate long-term predictions about how all this will play out. But right now, the future is looking distinctly modular.

Sam Macklin is a Marketing Communications Analyst at CA Technologies and the API Academy, specializing…


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