I’m thinking that the next major front of technology innovation will not be social or application-based, but will include circuitry and electronics and physical objects. If there might be social or mobile aspects to this movement, these will be subsegments rather than the core. In other words, I’m thinking that the next cool application – or at least the next major trend in coolness – will not be virtual but very real, comprising three dimensions, containing weight, and assembled in physical space. It isn’t that software will not play a significant role in this evolution, it isn’t that software may not even be an integral part of it, but I’m thinking that the next major wave of innovation will be in hardware.
This thought has been taking shape for some time, reflecting isolated conversations and observations and events. A couple of hardware venture deals by firms that typically invest in apps and social media, more than a year apart, drew some attention. More notably, more recently, the largest acquisition that Google has ever attempted has been of a hardware company. Now Amazon is working on Kindle upgrades that are at least as interesting as the Zappos acquisition, and Apple is apparently working on a television monitor. None of these examples, in isolation, would be particularly notable – although venture capital investments in 3D printing technology really should raise some eyebrows – but the combination of these, in the aggregate, is not to be overlooked.
If there is really something of a pattern starting to take shape, it stands to reason: hardware has some catching up to do, and software has done a great deal lately. It isn’t that software has run its course or abused its possibilities, but hardware – at least in consumer products – has not truly kept up with software’s torrid pace. Yes, there have been advancements in mobile devices, and many other advancements in other parts of the field, but nothing like the massive catapult of apps for imaginable and unimaginable uses, or the landscape-shifting impacts of software as a service or cloud computing. And it isn’t that a new improved Kindle, or an Apple television set, will have an impact comparable to the described software innovations, but the trend – or more correctly, the message behind the trend – is to be noted.
I’m thinking that what’s driving this trend, if in fact I’m not reacting prematurely, is the same dynamic that previously gave software evolution a push: reduction in barriers. Whether these were cost-based or information-based, or some combination of both, when software became widely accessible its innovation blossomed. By the same token, hardware may be getting to that point. Production costs always decline, and informationally speaking open-source – applied conceptually to hardware just as it was to software before – doesn’t hurt. Taking this a few steps further, similarities between software and hardware production may not only magnify, but we may eventually arrive at a point where software and hardware production become identical.
When Google agreed to purchase Motorola Mobility, much of the punditry focused its attention on the patent portfolio. There may be something to that; there probably is. It does not mean, however, that patents were the only reason, or necessarily the most important one. The same company, Google, began to work seriously on a project – long before patent acquisitions became fashionable – involving cars that drive themselves. This is a software and hardware combination that may warrant a second look now, framed in the context of a new perspective, as noted.