Gadgets must adapt to a world ruled by software
THIS year, as in every recent year, many tech writers said they planned to skip the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a tech event no longer seen as vital. It has been ages since anything momentous was unveiled at the CES.
But the travails of the CES are a symptom of a larger transformation in tech. The era dominated by consumer electronics is in turmoil.
One reason is that many devices have been superseded by a single, all-powerful tool: the smartphone. Today, just about everything that once required a small, dedicated electronic device - from cameras and portable game consoles to GPS navigators and music players - works better as an app on a phone.
At the same time, smartphones have created new categories of capabilities that have eclipsed gadgets as the tech industry's centre of energy and innovation.
I'm talking about photo apps like Instagram, messaging companies like WhatsApp and Snapchat, transportation systems like Uber and Lyft, and Apple Pay, the wireless payment system created by a firm best known for its hardware.
These services, powered by smart software, use our phones' constant connection to the cloud, and their powers to connect us with one another, to create tech experiences that wouldn't have been possible with the gadgets of yesteryear. None of them would have graced a stage at the CES, because none of these things are really gadgets.
Here's the important lesson for consumer electronics companies: The future of tech may not be in flashier, more powerful hardware, but instead in services enabled by clever software. The gadgets matter, but only if they allow for software that can create useful, perhaps ground-breaking services that work across all our gadgets.
"Today, what every customer expects is for their device to be a platform," said John MacFarlane, the chief executive of the connected-speaker company Sonos, referring to a design practice in which the machine's intelligence and user interface are built out of flexible software rather than baked into the hardware - thus enabling future improvements through updates.
Sonos, which was founded in 2002, was one of the first hardware start-ups to design its products this way.
Early in its design process, Sonos decided to make sure the software brains of its devices could be regularly updated.
As a result, in the years since, Sonos' speakers have gained a range of new powers. They can be controlled by a smartphone app, play music from dozens of streaming music services and connect to a home-automation system, allowing the system to read you the weather report when you step into your kitchen for breakfast.
Sonos was a pioneer, but a range of hardware start-ups have embraced a philosophy that prizes flexible software as the heart of gadgetry.
Nest transformed the previously staid market for home thermostats by creating a model that leverages software connected to the Internet. In the same vein, firms like Dropcam made software-powered cameras, and companies like Fitbit and Jawbone made connected fitness gadgets.
Still, these forward-thinking manufacturers must take pains to keep their devices one step ahead of the advance of smartphones, which are always gaining new, gadget-destroying capabilities. Consider the market for basic fitness trackers - for instance, devices like the Fitbit Zip, a thumb-size, US$60 (S$80) device that hooks to your belt and counts your steps as you move.
Such a tracker, which connects to a phone to sync its data, might have made sense a few years ago, when people weren't as hooked to their phones. But as people carry their phones around with them more often - and as our phones become capable of better measurement, including elevation - will people still need a basic activity tracker?
It's precisely because of this risk of being displaced by phones that gadget makers ought to think of their hardware as a platform for software.
In that world, a basic activity tracker that was rendered superfluous by a phone might acquire new capabilities for some other use. Maybe it could become part of a home automation system? By sensing the tracker's Bluetooth radio, for example, maybe your home could figure out where you are as you move around, and then turn on the lights as you enter a room, or lock the basement door when you head upstairs.
Many companies at the CES this week are focusing on plans for integrating their devices into connected systems, rather than simply bringing out flashier hardware.
Don't expect this integration to happen overnight; it could take years before we get to a point where it's a given that any device you buy will connect to any other. Gadget makers would do well to hasten this era: Their salvation lies in software.