SpaceX, a company known for making big splashy announcements — thanks to its media & attention savvy founder — very quietly snapped up a small startup called Swarm Technologies. In case you were wondering, “why?” SpaceX made the acquisition, then let me help you out: it is all about devices — more accurately put, the connected devices that need some connectivity. Some of us who love nerdy things, this category: Internet of Things.

The connected devices, especially in the industrial arena, have been a slow starter, mostly because the incumbents are slow to change, hate to spend money, and frankly, have not quite understood the importance of data. I saw that when “the cloud” was still young. SpaceX is betting that with bigger brand recognition and deeper pockets, they will turn Swarm’s business into a big moneymaker.

Swarm makes tiny satellites, which are even smaller than microsats. Think about the size of a stack of iPad Minis. Their satellites operate in VHF, different from Starlink. Swarm’s idea was to deploy up to 150 of these satellites and help connect devices from boring old industries such as agriculture, logistics, and energy. If they can get data from that connectivity, they can get smarter about their operations.

Swarm’s Satellites

The idea helped Swarm get about $35 million in venture funding. It also helped that the founders had some solid tech-chops. The company was the brainchild of Dr. Sara Spangelo & Dr. Ben Longmier: Spangelo worked on small satellites and autonomous aircraft at the University of Michigan and was a lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Google X. Longmier sold his company to Apple. And that is why their technology was interesting enough for SpaceX to snap up the company.

Picosats are inexpensive to make and deploy, so Swarm can afford to sell its data service — it starts at $5 a month quite cheaply. To be clear, this is no Starlink network. You get a mere 750 data packets per device per month, and that’s up to 192 Bytes per packet. Of course, you need Swarm’s special modules and other gear, but thankfully they are cheaper than any other Satellite gear.

In case you were wondering — that’s not a lot of data (or revenue,) but sensor reading data demands go up fast, especially when sensors start to spread everywhere. And as someone who thinks that connected sensors are an inevitability, this seems that it could eventually become a big opportunity for a large company like SpaceX. After all, there are (and soon will be more) machines than people. (Hey, I already said, I am in the connected everything camp.)

And if that big opportunity doesn’t work out — aka the worst-case scenario, SpaceX, can use Swarm technology to monitor their own sprawling network around the globe. Plus, they got two kick-ass brains to work at the company. It’s not as if they broke the bank for Swarm.

August 10, 2021. San Francisco

black text on gray background
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

E. B. White, an essayist for The New Yorker (and author of many books), once said: 

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." 

He probably was describing me — during the last week. At the start of this month, I set myself a goal — blog 500-word pieces every day. It was an effort to become a writing fit. I hope to write for a column for a publication shortly, and I want to regain my writing skills. As you might have gathered, I didn’t hit my goals this week. 

This week’s failure made me reflect on my past. When I was a professional writer (blogger, if you are pedantic), my writing was reactive, whether to some breaking news or a conversation or an interview. And on rare occasions, it would be like a finished lego set — where many bits and pieces from conversations, facts, news events, and theories would all neatly fit together. Whatever it was — being in the flow is a big part of writing steadily — one needs external input to spark internal creativity. 

Another crucial difference, perhaps, is that I have different commitments on my time today than in the past. I am less singular about writing about technology (and its impact) than I used to be. While technology is still a primary lens with how I view my world (and life), I find myself spending more time on the science of technology and have found a waning interest in the business of technology. Unicorns don’t excite me. And more importantly, the world of technology has become more complex and thus needs a lot more research, understanding, and deliberation. 

Since leaving the profession, I have discovered a passion for photography, and I think about it a lot. And with age, I have started to gravitate towards the “finished lego set” type of writing. And the timing of that writing has a bit of unpredictability to it. It is also an outcome of a set of random events that don’t happen as often. (Example: my essay, 40 Kilometers.) 

In that sense, I am much closer to writing like Susan Sontag, who, when asked about her writing regimen, said:

I write when I have to because the pressure builds up, and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really underway, I don't want to do anything else. 

Nevertheless, I know I have to develop a schedule to sit down and write for the remaining days of the month. Ideally, it will be first thing in the morning, long before the sun comes up and my phone starts distracting me from the words that matter. The good news is that I am an early riser. 

August 7, 2021. San Francisco 


TWeek That Was

white and black cat sketch
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Aug 2: Hey  @JasonHirschhorn  how about one of your special essays about  @MTV and joining the middle age yesterday? (I want my MTV is now 40 years old. Ouch.)

Aug 2: It is not the customer’s fault the network is being deprecated. So @AmazonKindle  has to step up & not be cheap. Replace old Kindles with the new ones. They will make up the costs in years of buying the new ebooks. The Verge

Aug 3: Tom Standage is an editor for The Economist and has a new book coming out on “the social history of the car, and why it’s the 1890s all over again.”  Tom is a great writer and a wonderful book author. Every one of his books sits in my library. Victorian Internet was/is my favorite.

Aug 3: Hey  @KP24  actually @JemiRodrigues is the leading run-scorer in @thehundred not @BenDuckett1  

Aug 4: From  @business newsletter today: “Zoom’s share of the video-conferencing market rose by 10% points to 76%” in Q2 from Q1. Translation: @Zoom has won the video conferencing sweepstakes

Aug 4: Here is  @SpaceXStarlink by the numbers: 90k subscribers. Active in 12 countries. Half a million on the waiting list. 1700 satellites deployed. My takeaway: huge demand for rural/off-the-grid connectivity, that incumbents failed to deliver.

Aug 6: Happy 30th birthday World Wide Web (WWW). What a wonderful gift to society (despite all the naysayers)  @timberners_lee 

About a month ago, I wrote about the state of Starlink, the satellite broadband division of SpaceX, and speculated that I won’t be surprised if “the Starlink network evolves into Tesla’s very own broadband backbone, connecting all Tesla vehicles.” Elon Musk, the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, threw cold water on that theory in a tweet. 

However, a new FCC filing shows that Starlink wants to offer connectivity to aircraft, ships, large trucks, and RVs. They picked the right target market for sure — the broadband choices on ships and aircraft are pretty meager. Mobile broadband is non-existent when you are using those modes of transportation.

However, I wouldn’t dismiss the Tesla vehicle network that quickly, despite what Elon said. In a January 2020 call, he said that in some years. Tesla could have Starlink terminals. Anyway, since Tesla has concrete plans to make trucks, so that would be a good start of Tesla’s backbone. Connecting its future big-boy trucks (Cybertruck) and moving trucks could help Tesla finetune the hardware for Starlink. 

And if the trajectory of all silicon has shown us anything, it is that miniaturization happens quickly. And capabilities increase even faster. I still remember the roof-sized dishes we needed to get satellite television. Those dishes are much smaller now. 


Ever wondered why Elon Musk is so high on Starlink, the low orbit internet access centric satellite constellation his company, Space X is building? It is because despite all the talk about Mars colonies, for now, communications is what will pay the bills and keep SpaceX growing. And it could be a lot more disruptive by lowering the cost of satellite communications and by being more inclusive. Imagine what if it cost $100,000 to build and launch a satellite — and you can imagine the rest. Read this astute analysis of the Starlink phenomenon by Casey Handmer.  (Also: Who is Casey?)