Software trumps hardware

September 14th, 2016


This week Apple customers are being treated to both software and hardware updates. Friday is hardware day, with the retail launch of the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, and Apple Watch Series 2. But I’m more interested in the software, with Apple releasing three updated operating systems yesterday. iOS 10 is the star, of course, and not just because the iPhone 7 is an iPhone 6SS in disguise.

Hardware’s always been the hero for companies like Apple and Samsung. It is, after all, how they make the bulk of their profits. Gadgets are the central characters of any tech ad, the products conspicuously placed into A-listers’ hands in your favorite films, and the thing that’s fawned over by Good Morning America hosts. Colossal homages to the newest iPhone and Galaxy S are erected in Times Square each fall and sprawled across giant billboards worldwide. The device is tangible, it’s something we can pin our hopes to, our aspirations. But it’s software that gives the hardware meaning. An axiom that’s never been truer now that all phones are equally smart.

Almost every smartphone launched since the original iPhone in 2007 has been iterative in nature. That’s not a complaint, mind you — it’s how progress progresses. Nine years later and we have higher-precision rectangles with longer-lasting batteries, brighter screens with invisible pixels, sensors out the wazoo, higher-resolution cameras, and much faster processing, memory, storage, radios, and graphics. Each new flagship along the way was just a better version of the device that preceded it, bringing us to a situation of near-parity across every brand.  All these incremental changes add up, naturally. The difference between an iPhone 7 and the first iPhone is vast — the A10 processor in Apple’s latest phone is 120 times faster than the original, making the differences between an iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 minuscule by comparison. I’d argue that software has evolved much more dramatically than its underlying hardware, and has done so in more surprising and interesting ways. As my friend Joanna Stern wrote for The Wall Street Journal, "Big software improvements matter more than incremental hardware changes."

Thanks to the billions of phones we as a species carry, digital music — once ripped, mixed, and burned — now plays over the air through music services like Spotify. YouTube videos stream a new generation of "TV stars" to a generation that doesn’t watch television. Games are now something to be done casually and alone, while photographs, once precious, are taken haphazardly to document the banal. App stores have created software behemoths like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram (okay, those are all one company), Snapchat, and Twitter, while business apps have allowed workers to become increasingly untethered from their office cubicles. The evolution of phone hardware has ushered in a revolution of software and services.

Left to the Motorolas of the world, smartphones could have evolved in much the same was as televisions — which is to say, not much at all. The TV experience has essentially remained unchanged since the 1950s. Sure it got flatter and more colorful and it got a whole lot bigger, but it’s still the same ol’ passive "boob tube" consumption device it always was. Some misguided attempts to make TVs "smart" by shoehorning clumsy OSes into the living room appliance haven’t changed that.

True, Samsung’s dual-curved phones are prettier than the tired iPhone slabs, but so what? Besides not blowing up and killing you, a smartphone’s other main purpose is to act as an enabler to the software and services within. And you don’t always need the latest hardware to accomplish that.

Being able to run the same mobile operating system sold on brand new phones has long been a perk enjoyed by owners of iPhones and Nexus devices. I’d never buy anything else because I want the latest and greatest software available from Apple and Google just as soon as it’s available — even when my device is a few years old.

I updated my two-year-old iPhone 6 Plus to iOS 10 last night and today I’ll be updating my son’s four-year-old hand-me-down iPhone 5. (I always wait a bit for issues to shake out.) True, I can’t download Apple Pay to his phone because it doesn’t have NFC or TouchID hardware. And neither of us will be 3D Touching anything since our phones lack the required display sensors found in Apple’s newer devices. We also won’t be using Raise-to-Wake because that requires an M9 or later motion coprocessor. But we’ll still get to use the revamped iMessages, better Maps, Apple’s HomeKit app, redesigned Apple Music, Photo search, multilingual typing, Universal Clipboard (once macOS is released next week), home screen notifications, and the many UI tweaks and app enhancements made throughout. And, boy, is it satisfying to finally remove some of Apple’s core junk apps like Stocks and Compass.

Don’t get me wrong, in an ideal world where I possessed unlimited cash I’d always own the newest, most powerful hardware running the latest software to guarantee the best overall experience. One thing I’d never do, though, is buy a new Sony Xperia for example, just to own the latest hardware running last year’s operating system. If I had to choose one over the other, I’d almost always choose in favor of new software. That’s why I’m running the new iOS 10 on my old iPhone 6 Plus while saving up for what’s looking like a must-have 10th anniversary iPhone.

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