The State of the Mobile Economy – according to me: Hardware doesn’t matter

Hardware doesn’t matter anymore and I’m starting to wonder if it ever really did.

Before the holidays I was exposed to Google TV and the mondo remote control that Sony created in order to use the device in “lean back” mode. Here is a picture of what it looks like:

When I see something like this I feel the designers and developers have failed at their job of creating a usable product which will influence my decision to purchase or not. Hardware design has become a commodity and one that I can’t really get excited about nor influence at this point. Don’t get me wrong, good, simple, usable hardware design is an incredible skill but putting too much emphasis on the hardware and not enough on the usability of the software that goes with it spells disaster.

My kids have been brought up with technology all around them – casualties of my profession. I was once a BlackBerry user and would hand them my phone to play with. They were impressed and momentarily distracted with the glowing trackball. I moved over to an iPhone and handed it to them and almost immediately they pushed the one insignificant button, slid the unlock key and were exposed to a world of wonder. Now, there are always finger prints on my 42 inch plasma TV because they think they should be able to swipe the TV to change channels.

Nothing better exemplifies the difference between hardware and software that the juxtaposition of my kids swiping the TV vs me handing them the Sony Google TV remote control.

In the mobile world there are even more constraints and even more expectations of usability on the software side – this is the layer of innovation. To build a beautiful experience, you need to overcome the limitations of the hardware by writing great software that enables people to use the device. Dual core? Who cares if I can’t take a great picture quickly. Bluetooth support? Who cares if I can’t connect to my car without telling it to. WiFi? Who cares if I can’t seamlessly transfer a cell call to VOIP without hanging up and calling back.

There are so many people and companies focused on the hardware specifications of smartphones and tablets these days but that’s not what is going to win in this market. When they all look the same – beveled rich screens, fast processors, cameras and all the trimmings, 7 inche tablets or 10 inche tablets – software becomes the differentiator and the companies that get the experience right will win. Apple has demonstrated this when it comes to the App frenzy we saw in 2010 and Google has shown us that the one stumbling block for Android has been the user experience (although it has been getting better with every release). I also believe the other significant player in the smartphone market, RIM, finally understands that good hardware is a beachhead for success, the rest lies in user experience – hence their recent purchase of TAT.

Hardware shouldn’t be noticed, it should just be used.

What do you think?

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • Rob I agree with your premise EXCEPT in how you might define ‘hardware.’ Hardware design will always matter. Apple rolled the dice that a simple, elegant sheet of glass (industrial design) would win the day AND that they could deliver a load of technology (production process and engineering design) into a thin, elegant little package. The ‘user experience’ guys get the credit, but the hardware designers and engineers delivered the atoms that ultimately serve up all of those clever bits.

    I’d also argue that one of the reasons Apple is so successful is exactly because their hardware gets noticed. The physical elegance of the new iPad makes every other copycat sheet of glass device pale in comparison.

    And I doubt Apple id ‘done’ designing hardware. A sheet of glass on top of an ever thinner device won’t be the last physical interface we ever use. The hardware guys will always be tasked with coming up with the next really cool physical devices to permanently connect us all to Facebook.

    That Sony device above could use a couple more buttons…

  • It does start with the hardware experience – Apple nailed that and everyone else is trying to figure out how to catch them. The other thing that makes the hardware work is the ecosystem as well. I think marginal hardware can be successful if there is enough developer support and opportunity to generate revenue from it. That will in turn create a strong foundation/ecosystem and overcome any hardware limitations.

    Hardware in the context to software is that this isn’t a one-horse race anymore. If you build software, you need to make it run on all hardware, despite the limitations it might have.

  • B Donnelly

    Good one Rob – however preferences depend on requirements (needs) and criteria – in a vanilla consumer situation you are probably right however you kids are non-descriminating. More sophisticated users and enterprises will differ significantly.

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