Marc Andreessen’s pithy observation that "software is eating the world" has been popular (and true) for more than half a decade now, but I’ve come to find it only describes the development of the tech industry partially. Even as apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Uber turn startups into multibillion-dollar ventures, there’s still a hardware component underlying all of them. As the battle for future mobile users shifts to the realm of personal assistants and machine-learning automation, there’s still a physical object that all of that software runs on.
As a technology reviewer, I’ve always cared more about the physical device. How big are the bezels around the screen? Is the USB port at the bottom smooth and polished or does it cut into my palm? And does the thing have a headphone jack? Looking at the way tech fans have responded to recent news, I’m inclined to think that I’m among the majority on this issue. Software is absolutely of paramount importance, and in most cases it’s the cause for why we fall in love with this or that gadget, but ultimately it’s the hardware that we love.
The ghost incites feelings that we then associate with the shell.
Five years ago, Microsoft was the architect of the world’s most popular and most profitable operating system and office software, but it was loved only by tribalist fanboys. Its Xbox, on the other hand, had more widespread appreciation, though it wasn’t until Microsoft turned into a proper hardware manufacturer — producing the Surface Pro, Surface Book, Surface Studio, and most recently the Surface Laptop — that it became a universal darling. Microsoft is now one of the most exciting companies in tech, in part because it’s morphed into an underdog, but also because it’s pushing industrial design boundaries with fresh and unique new hardware.
Samsung has undergone a similar transformation. It used to be the cheap Apple copycat, but then it recognized the value of appealing, high-quality design in attracting long-term user loyalty, and now it too is among the world’s favorite tech companies. There are legitimate, unabashed Samsung fans now.
Sony and HTC are also helpful examples, insofar as neither has been a leader among phone makers for years, but both still command a passionate following based on their previous products. There’s no denying that HTC once led the world when it came to refined smartphone design, and Sony’s history as a hardware innovator hardly needs recounting. It’s because they gave their fans a physical thing to channel their love and affection into that both of these brands still enjoy such lasting loyalty today.
Turn to pure software companies, on the other hand, and you’ll see a distinctly different picture. Facebook is used daily by something close to 1.3 billion people and recently crossed the 2-billion-user mark, but few would argue that they love it. Uber has become an essential service in Silicon Valley, but most of its riders use it while battling through a distinct sense of ambivalence. Even Amazon, which has been indispensable to many people’s lives for years, benefited greatly from its introduction of the Kindle and, later, the Echo speaker as the home of its Alexa voice assistant.
At Google I/O this past week, I got another affirmation of this belief that hardware is the thing that pulls in eyeballs and affection most readily. Google, basically, had none. Everything happening in Mountain View these days is about blending artificial intelligence and machine learning into everyday tools and services, and there wasn’t a new Google Home speaker like there was last year to give a corporeal manifestation to these efforts. I’ve no doubt that the work Google is doing now will prove fruitful down the line and make future Android and Chrome OS devices that much more enticing — but in the short term, people were left a little disappointed by the absence of new Google gadgets to gawk at and consider.
Physical things anchor our gadget lust in the real world and ultimately soak up whatever goodwill the software on those gadgets engenders. Yes, people have their favorite apps, but the appreciation for an app’s quality rarely translates into love for its maker. With hardware, on the other hand, a great user experience is almost always converted into brand loyalty. That’s part of Apple’s grand success, it’s the catalyst for growing fan appreciation for Microsoft and Amazon, and it was the thing that made Google I/O feel a bit boring.