Why software is ruling the world
When an Android microwave is one of the big talking points of the Consumer Electronics Show, one begins to wonder whether we're shifting from the sublime to the ridiculous. The world of hardware seems to be collapsing in on itself. There are certain marker categories such as cameras, televisions, laptops and phones but all of the new developments and paradigms are starting to look like just a matter of shading in the areas in between.
Take advancements like the netbook and the smartphone. What we're looking at here are essentially small laptops and big mobiles. There's a much spoken about convergence towards a smaller number of devices to suit the needs of our new digital lives, lives ruled by our new master - software. The tablet is this year's answer to a mobile way of accessing our pictures, profiles, films, music and communications. Once you begin to throw in better and better cameras as well, then all sorts of hardware categories come under threat too.
An ideal internet connected device could wipe out laptops, compacts, MP3-players and mobile phones as well. In fact, in an extreme scenario, the only real survivor might be some kind of home entertainment system large enough to justify its existence because of a bigger, more enjoyable interface and the easier way to experience it as a social activity. Ultimately, could we just be looking at two pieces of kit? One fixed, permanent and in the home cinema and the other for mobile use both inside and outside the home?
Manufacturers have had years spent honing their hardware to become the perfect ways for us to interface with content and it feels like they've got so good at it that for a moment, at least, they're stuck. It's why advancements like 3D are such a big deal because suddenly there is a new flag for them all to rally around; a new product they can offer. Next it will be holographic projection, then touch-interactive ones based on the kind of technology we saw from Light Blue Optics; after that perhaps even content that can touch us back. These are a long was off though and, at the moment, it's the connected world, the internet and what this new way of living can do for us that is driving inspiration in the field.
So, while those, that can, run to tablets, others make weird and wonderful moves of crossing technologies in what can often feel like desperation. Nikon adding a projector to a compact camera was one such an idea. Is that something people really want in a compact camera or was it just an attempt to add value to product the company has essentially already perfected. Another model in the same class shown at CES was the Samsung CL80 and its Bluetooth, address book and on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Are these features really that useful on a photography device? Everything seems to have a touchscreen now - even when it's only three inches big. When the pads of our fingers span about half an inch, one begins to wonder whether someone thought touch control would make their LCDs easier to use or just more impressive sounding - another way in which to trump the competition who incidentally have come up with exactly the same idea.
Yes, it's software and services where the real interest lies at the moment. Social networking is bigger and more exciting than ever but it's whole operating systems that are taking over now. The majority of the hardware shown off at CES caused a stir when it ran Android or Chrome OS which brings us back neatly to the example of our microwave, which, incidentally, was a very good idea in its own right and the perfect example of why it's the software that counts. It's a old piece of hardware brought crashing into the present from 30 years in the past all because of a few apps that could make it work so much better by providing something as simple as more precise cooking times all thanks to modern coding and connectivity developments.
I was going to mention the Sony Bravia TVs and their new face recognition systems as an example of hardware desperation but as it happens it's a stroke of genius. It may have started off as an idea for a gimmick but if the screen knows who's watching it, then it can tailor content accordingly. It can produce the appropriate favourite channels, start recordings from where that person left them and even tell them if their friends are watching the same programs elsewhere. This kind of hardware technology has been around for a long time but people are starting to use software to unlock it's potential. You could even argue that it's part of a more renewable consciousness - an interest in re-using, recycling and being more efficient with what we already have developed. You could argue it but I doubt that's the motive at the heart of the matter.
What really seems to be happening is that after a break through in hardware technology, then there seems to be a flurry of software unlocking the potential behind it. Currently, we're in an enormous vacuum since smartphones and, biggest of all, the internet itself and with app stores and services left right and centre, we're seeing the software rushing in to fill the void. Only once that has slowed and the gradient equalled will the resources be put into the next piece of hard kit or technological idea to break the mold once more. This run of tablets will certainly create a blip on the chart but it's the like of the Light Touch projector, eCoupled's wireless home and even Project Natal that will make the big difference.