Is hardware really dead?

As I read through a post on Inneractive by Hillel Fuld entitled, “Specs Are Dead? Try Hardware is Dead. Well, Irrelevant, At the Very Least,” I found myself asking similar questions. In short, to most of the public does what is inside a computer or device matter? Quite frankly, I’d argue no.

I’ve followed trends in consumer electronics for years. Thinking back on that, I’ve noticed that I’ve personally cared about hardware when there was some kind of tangible innovation that “solved” a particular problem. The first time I really paid attention to consumer electronics was in the 1980s when the Nakamichi UniDirectional auto reverse cassette deck was released.

At the time, manufacturers struggled with how to playback both sides of an album with high fidelity. Flipping vinyl was cost prohibitive and a mechanical nightmare, but the cassette tape offered a different approach. Most manufacturers created auto reverse mechanisms that simply ran the tape backwards over the playback head. The thing is that it isn’t that simple. To get high-quality playback, the stereo head needs to be in alignment with the tracks on the tape (of which there are four — two in the forward direction and two in the reverse). To solve this problem, there were three options:

  1. Have four pickups on the head and use a stereo pair in the forward direction and a pair in reverse.
  2. Have two stereo heads, one for each direction, and turn them on or off depending on the direction.
  3. Have one head and rotate it depending on the direction of playback.

Nakamichi took a different approach. Rather than reversing the tape, it physically flipped the tape in the deck just as a person might do with a single direction player. Now clearly this technology didn’t take off, but it was innovative and people took note. It showed up in music videos of the time and for audiophiles, was something of a status symbol as much as owning a B&O stereo. The hardware solved a problem in a very cool way.

As we’ve reduced technical complexity to single chips of silicon, the allure of hardware in the consumer consciousness has changed. We’ve become more connected with form and function rather than features and specs. Even on some of the most geeky and nerdy technology review shows as of late, the hosts are literally saying “blah-blah” over the specs (such in the “Gadget Pr0n” segment on Attack of the Show). Hardware is lighter, faster, cheaper and bells and whistles don’t really mean that much. When was the last time you swapped out your microSD card in your phone (if it has one)? When was the last time you can recall a non-enthusiast buying a computer based on the type of motherboard? We’ve reached a point where most people don’t care about what’s inside the box. Enthusiasts care, but general consumers don’t.

Last night I dug up a copy of “Computers & Electronics” from March 1984, which had a review of the first Macintosh and an interview with its design team. The hardware vision was very different for the time (but was a foreshadowing of today):

Because of the decision to keep the number of [hardware] boards low, the team decided to keep it a closed machine, and eliminated extra room for add-on memory boards or peripheral controllers. The Macintosh wasn’t aimed at the computer hobbyist… It’s for the general user, who would probably be happiest if he or she never had to touch the back of the machine at all and could instead treat it as just another tool, like a blender or telephone.

That vision still lives on at Apple, now one of the most valuable and successful companies in the world that during its midlife, did lose this basic vision. It succumbed to thinking that hobbyist and enthusiast view of hardware should be the focus of its design — and it nearly killed the company. Its user base simply didn’t care about the stuff — Mac users were interested in what the technology could do for them and how Apple could get the hardware out of the way of the creativity.

A few days ago, HP announced that it is going to spin its PC division into its printer division, further signally that hardware is nothing more than a means to an end. Sony, the once dominant force in consumer electronics, succumbed to specs and is suffering. Dell is seeking a new path as margins become razor thin and differentiators fewer in number. Nokia and RIM are nearly gone. And if Samsung can’t figure out the human side of its products, they’ll slip, too.

Hardware as specs isn’t interesting anymore; what people do with the array of technology options available to them within the digital ecosystem is. The mystery and interest is in what’s possible, not what’s on the flipside of a glossy brochure.