I bought my phone almost two years ago. Today, it does things it didn’t do back then, like shooting cinemagraphs, wirelessly syncing with my computer and beaming stuff up to my TV. My first Xbox 360 didn’t play Netflix or Hulu when I bought it back in 2007. Now it does. My Kindle turns pages faster now than it did when I pulled it out of the box. The weird part isn’t that these things have new powers that they didn’t once upon time—it’s that I’d actually be upset if they didn’t. I expect my phone to be better today than it was yesterday, better tomorrow than it is today.
That wasn’t always the case. When Sony shipped a Walkman, TPS-L2, it stayed the same. Four or ten or 15 years later, the play button worked just like it did the day it left the factory. (Unless you broke it.) A TV was a TV was a TV. The hands on a watch turned. And turned. And turned. Until they didn’t. Once they were given form in plastic or metal or glass, gadgets weren’t malleable objects. Form was function, forever.
What changed? It’s the software, stupid.
Gadgets aren’t just hardware anymore. Hardware is, more and more, just a delivery mechanism for software, toast under the jam. Consider the iPhone or iPad: They’re blank slates. A screen with a battery bolted on the back fitted together by a glass or aluminum shell. Inside of them are basically the same guts, the same silicon as the shitty $99 Android tablet I wouldn’t inflict on even the most loathsome human being (except maybe Chris Brown, fuck that guy) or the Windows Phone you’ve never heard of. More and more, it’s the software that makes a gadget different or special, or even more simply, good or bad. A beautiful piece of technology running garbage software is just beautiful garbage.
We’ve crossed a point in which basically every gadget is a computer of sorts. Partly because we wanted them to be smarter and connected and because the world is simply a digital place now—there’s no such thing as an analog mp3 player—but the ability to remake our listening devices and televisions in a computer’s image has been driven by the fact that computing power and sensors got dirt cheap, and are getting cheaper everyday. The secret behind Microsoft’s $150 Kinect is sensor technology that cost $10,000 before Microsoft got its hands on it. Your phone is stuffed with an array sensors: gyros, accelerometer, ambient light sensor, multiple mics, a camera. So of course all of your gadgets are tiny computers. Why wouldn’t they be? And when everything’s a computer, it’s the software that counts.
And while the iPod was a better music device than my Creative Zen because it was more beautiful and the jog wheel and interface was less stupid and iTunes made me want to scatter my brains across my screen slightly less than whatever demon software Creative had shipped to siphon your music onto it, now that nearly everything is a touchscreen, we’re in a place where, at least with most of our gadgets, there is nothing for designers to do but subtract, stripping and cutting and reducing, leaving as little as possible but a naked screen. Which means there’s nothing left but software. An iPhone is easier to use than the average Android device not because its volume button is in a different place or shaped differently, but because an army of designers and coders hacked together a bunch of bits and graphics that are easier to use than the guys at Samsung did. It’s sort of QED, particularly as guys who’ve spent many decades in the consumer electronics business—the Panasonics and Samsungs and Sonys of the world—try to make gadgets the way they used to, or worse, try pretend they’re a software company when they’re really not, and put out things that make VCR jokes look like the good old days.
The thing about bits is that you can change them whenever you want. Say, if you’re Apple, and there’s a massive privacy controversy over the way you allow developers access to people’s entire address book willy-nilly. You just push out an update. Problem solved! If Sony had shipped a Walkman that ate toddlers’ hands, well, it would eat their hands until it was recalled. There was no pushing an update. Which is great, when say, Microsoft wants to make my Xbox do new, cool things. But the downside is that we now live in a permanent beta culture. Companies ship products before they’re ready because they know they can fix them later. I literally cannot count how many times I reviewed a product at Gizmodo that was buggy, slow or otherwise crap, only to be met with the earnest-but-cheerful response, “We’re about to do an update! It’ll fix everything!” It very rarely does.
I’m not trying to say that good hardware design or adequately strong guts don’t matter anymore—I wouldn’t want a deathly slow iPad that was three inches thick and weighed 2 pounds—just that software is the soul of technology now. (I guess you could make a quip about a homely person with a lovely soul, but when it comes to things I want, I want it all.) Which is why the best stuff, more and more is made by software companies who are just serious enough about their software to make the hardware too. In other words, I hope you love Apple, Microsoft and Google, because you’re going to be buying a lot from them.