API Economist: Historically, I've always thought of National Instrument as a hardware company, but you guys have been in software for a long time.
Jeff Meisel: Actually, out of the 35 years of our company history, for more than 25 of those we’ve had a heavy focus on our LabVIEW software, released in 1986. LabVIEW is a graphical programming language which at the time was just available on the Mac, but essentially that kicked off a new era for the company. While some companies focused solely on hardware and others just focused on software, similar to what Apple does in the consumer space, the way we go about solving engineering applications is we believe there's tremendous value in delivering an integrated software and hardware approach.
API Economist: How did your API strategy come about?
Jeff Meisel: As a platform company, working with third‑party developers has always been really important. We started out with software and general purpose interface boards, or GPIB, that would allow folks to automate instrumentation. One of the first things we did, and this was going back to the late '80s, and '90s, and still today, was we wanted to allow all instrument vendors to be able to develop drivers that would interface to our platform. That developer approach was always really important.
Recently, we wanted to take that a step further, so for about five years, we've been researching and then executing on an API strategy, where not only can folks build instrumentation drivers, but they can actually hook into our entire software stack, build add‑ons, and innovate on our tools using an API approach.
What that allows us to do is two‑fold. First, partners are able to innovate on our stack, so that increases the number of vertical applications our platform can solve. Second, it allows our end‑users to go deeper into our platform. This is really important in emerging areas like the RF space, where standards are changing so quickly. By exposing API hooks to our end‑users, combined with our Reconfigurable I/O hardware, our users can reconfigure their instrumentation using our software stack and immediately support new standards that emerge.
API Economist: Does your API program offer private APIs or public APIs?
Jeff Meisel: It's mostly a public API program, where we build APIs that are exposed in our standard software release. If you're an end‑user of our LabVIEW software, we expose public APIs and accompanying documentations such that you can extend the platform. In addition to that, we do have some private APIs where we work closely with lead users and strategic partners who do special extensions of our platform.
API Economist: I read that LabVIEW was used in SpaceX mission control. That must have been pretty cool.
Jeff Meisel: That was a really exciting application. As you may know, LabVIEW is used in a wide range of applications, ranging from K (kindergarten) through rocket science. On one end of the spectrum, there's a special version of LabVIEW that's used for the LEGO Mindstorms, and that's part of our STEM efforts to encourage more children to become engineers. On the other end of the spectrum, it's used in many of the most demanding research and commercial products on the planet, so SpaceX is a great example of that. At SpaceX in particular, LabVIEW was used to control launch pad equipment and to command and monitor the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and the Dragon spacecraft.
API Economist: How did National Instruments get involved with Lego Mindstorms?
Jeff Meisel: We began working with Dr. Chris Rogers at Tufts University in the '90s, who was instrumental in developing early versions of software that worked with the LEGO Mindstorms. The brick at that time had limited sensor capabilities, but still, for its time, was extremely innovative in getting kids excited in engineering. Through that initial relationship with academia, we formed a partnership with LEGO and began developing their next‑generation software. Throughout the past decade, we've been collaborating closely with LEGO to design a special version of LabVIEW that’s approachable to children, while still maintaining the core elements of a programming language and the LabVIEW engineering platform.
Children can graphically design functionality for their robots. Say, for example, they're doing an experiment where the robot has to follow a path in order to deliver an object from one side of a classroom to another. They develop that graphically, and through that process, learn about different programming techniques and just general problem solving. We feel this is a great way to get young children excited about science and engineering.
API Economist: How has your API program helped your partner strategy?
Jeff Meisel: APIs have given our partners access to a set of interfaces in our software stack that previously were only available to our internal R&D developers. In effect, it's given partners the ability to create new features for the platform, and ultimately, they're able to monetize those and grow their own business, and it helps make our platform more valuable and more capable for our audience of engineers and scientists.
API Economist: What exactly does LabVIEW allow you to do?
Jeff Meisel: One key area where LabVIEW is used is automated test, for example, testing a latest generation mobile device or consumer product. A second key area in embedded design, where you're a startup, such as a medical device company, and you're trying to quickly prototype a control system using biological measurements very quickly. The sweet spot for LabVIEW is when you're combining measurements from the outside world, and taking a graphical approach to solving a problem more quickly.
Compared with traditional programming tools, LabVIEW has well over a thousand built‑in IP blocks that are specific to engineering and science, so there are a lot of starting points for engineers. For example you don't have to write your own FFT algorithm, or your own PID loop for control. There are starting blocks as well as functional templates that help you build the right architecture for your application and quickly get to market.
API Economist: How have you leveraged hackathons to drive innovation?
Jeff Meisel: What's great about hackathons is how they can build excitement in the developer community, because, inherently, developers want to build things. Hackathons, and more broadly, developer events in general, are something we hold regularly across the globe, and it's intended to spur innovation from our developers as well as be a learning opportunity. One of my favorite hackathon contests is held at our annual NIWeek user conference in Austin, where each year there's a programming challenge to determine the world's fasted programmer.
Regarding internal design competitions, I think those are extremely exciting and sometimes what the engineers within the company come up with are just out of this world. The most memorable example is we had a team of new hires and interns called Waterloo Labs, and they retrofitted and '88 Oldsmobile with controls and actuators, and the goal was to drive the vehicle autonomously all while interfacing to an iPhone. We have a YouTube video of this, where one of our young engineers is car surfing on top of the car, driving it with his iPhone…just a pretty awesome example!
API Economist: How do you monetize your API program?
Jeff Meisel: Monetization is one of the key things you need to think about when starting an API program, and we monetize our program through a B2B app store called the LabVIEW Tools Network. It's analogous in many ways to a mobile app store. One key difference is because our end‑users are oftentimes designing mission‑critical systems, we have a very rigorous testing process that our certification engineers use to vet on the apps and the add‑ons before they're published to the store.
Another key element of monetization is determining where in the engagement with your developers it makes sense. For us, we don't charge developers to join our program. We try to lower the barrier of entry as much as possible, with the goal of making them successful with our tools. In the end, this pays dividends for both NI and the developer when they're successful.
API Economist: Where do you see the Internet of Things, or the Industrial Internet, going in the future?
Jeff Meisel: The Internet of Things is clearly driving innovation in the technology sector. Recently, McKinsey & Company published a report that projects by the year 2025, 12 of these innovative technologies, the Internet of Things being one of them, have the potential to deliver economic impact of up to $33 trillion a year worldwide. These combinations of technologies, it included the mobile Internet, it included the automation of knowledge, and the Internet of Things, as the top three, are going to create jobs and just create a ton of innovation over the upcoming decade.
Where we play is at the intersection of where software and hardware systems interact with the real world. Our company established approximately five years ago the NI Embedded Systems Laboratory at UC Berkeley, where a lot of research in this space is taking place, particularly around what's called cyber‑physical systems.
It's this intersection of software, hardware, real‑world control, signal processing, and big data. Our technologies are already used in wind turbine control systems, autonomous vehicles, and robotics, for example. Ultimately, through the Internet of Things, I see the potential for more measurement capabilities, real‑world control systems, and analytics to build a smarter world through a platform-based approach. I think it will be really exciting to see how our generation of engineers and scientists takes advantage of this new landscape.
API Economist: Time for our favorite question, what devices do you use and what are some of your favorite apps?
Jeff Meisel: I'm a big fan of Apple, so I have a lot of their devices. I'm also into productivity tools, so I’m a user of Evernote, as well as a project planning app called Tom's Planner created by software company in the Netherlands.
API Economist: Jeff, thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
Jeff Meisel: My pleasure!