Hardware: Does it really matter anymore?

Summary:At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, hardware will take a backseat to software -- perhaps for good. Is hardware innovation alive and well?

David Chernicoff

David Chernicoff

It's alive and well

or

Hardware? Ho-hum

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Best Argument: It's alive and well

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Hardware is what makes it possible

David Chernicoff: No matter how interesting software is, or how exciting the user experience becomes, without continued innovation in hardware technologies, software will begin to stagnate. Consumers demand, and vendors promise, impovements with each generation of product, and the only way to meet those continued demands is for the hardware to continually improve to exceed the demands of the next generation of software.

Hardware and software existing in a symbiotic relationship, with each step, on either side, driving the other forward to build something bigger and better. Momentary ascendance of either side doesn’t mean that the other is in permanent descent. Regardless of the software technology, the underlying hardware is what makes it possible.

Every major consumer software advance has become possible because of the underlying hardware. The implicit competition between hardware and software brings out the best in innovation on both sides. And that is not going to change anytime soon.

 

Merely a matter of preference

Chris Dawson: As the world moves online, hardware has become nothing more than a religion. I tend to use Macs because I like the OS and the hardware takes the abuse I give it. On the other hand, I’m writing this on a PC in a web browser. I could just as easily dictate it on my Droid. Even in the enterprise, there is a general move to the cloud or cheap clusters of generic servers.

While there will always be a place for high-end hardware and pushing the performance envelope, the vast majority of what we do is now far more dependent on an Internet connection than on 8 cores of processing power or the latest version of Windows running on a Wintel system. How users access the web -- whether it be from a mobile device, a speedy Macbook, a Chromebook, or a DIY desktop -- has become a matter of preference.
 

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Tablets

    How would you improve tablet hardware and how does software differentiate?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Its all about usability

    If I had to pick one thing it would be color screens with the readability of e-Ink screens in daylight and similar battery life. That battery issues certainly seems to be the common denominator here. Software defines the user experiences, and on that front iOS is the clear leader. I'm not as down on ICS as a lot of folks, but a solid, stable OS is critical for tablet success.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    Make it cheap and take advantage of touch

    The Kindle Fire gets people excited because of its price. We can go a lot lower on hardware that will still be durable and highly usable. Tablet hardware is actually quite compelling at this point; now Moore's Law needs to kick in. Software, however, is the biggest differentiator. When the same old design principles go into applications as were used on desktop PCs, then you don't have anything that is better suited to a tablet in your hand than a notebook in your lap. Optimize that software to take advantage of touch and improve accessibility for all users and you have some very cool, innovative software.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Hardware advances

    What are your top three hardware advances in the last five years?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It's more the combinations of technologies than individual changes

    From the consumer perspective, tablets, smartphones, multi-core CPUs

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    LCD technologies, 4G data, and drastic price reductions

    The latest LCDs, whether on TVs, phones, tablets, or otherwise make for great entertainment and productivity experiences. Once you've used 4G, 3G is totally painful, especially if you're trying to get work done. And can you imagine what a 50" flat panel, if it had existed, would have cost 5 years ago? Or the performance equivalent of an iPad 2?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Yes it's another ultrabook question

    For the record, I'm ultrabooked out right now, but I have to ask. Is the ultrabook a sign of hardware innovation? Why or why not?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No

    The ultrabook is only innovation in the sense that it is an attempt to commoditize what would previously have been high-end specialty components. Perhaps there will be a surprise announcement at CES that will show something truly innovative within the ultrabook products, but I'm not holding my breath. Though something really impressive at a sub-$500 price point would really catch my attention...

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    Nope...not at $1000 a pop it's not

    When you can achieve similar performance in laptops that are half an inch thicker, a couple pounds heavier, and $500 cheaper, ultrabooks *so* don't represent hardware innovation. Thinner and lighter is great, but this is post-recession 2012. We need great performance, great battery life, and, more importantly, great value. If OEMs want to innovate, lets boost battery life and drop costs, not make devices that can slice tomatoes. I don't need another Ginsu 2000.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Show me new form factors

    What new form factors are necessary to really push the hardware innovation curve?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    This is a tough one

    Function should almost always define form, so the intended use if the device should define what the future will bring. That being said, the pattern always seems to be smaller, lighter, thinner, and faster (some appropriate combination) as the primary drivers in functionality. Vendors usually follow this, sometimes, unfortunately, to the extent that they negatively impact functionality, then the cycle starts all over.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    Light, cheap tablets and clamshell tablets

    If I want to leave my laptop behind, I need something on which I can type easily. A software/LCD keyboard that opens up on my tablet without adding to its weight would fill the bill. In the same way, that long-awaited $100 tablet is more important than a 4-core monster for $500. As David has pointed out, battery life needs to increase drastically. I need to get more than 2 hours out of my phone when I'm hitting 4G networks hard with tethering. Finally, truly usable, all-weather, foldable computers would be game changers. I want to access the web or applications anytime, anywhere on a device that I can fit into my pocket with a richness that requires at least 10" of screen real estate. For that, it needs to fold, roll, or bend and resist the elements in ways I'm not inclined to test with my iPad.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Parallel computing

    Where does parallel computing fit into the hardware innovation equation?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    In some very specific cases

    A good multi-core system is able to handle multi-tasking better, presuming all of the software has been properly coded. As Chris pointed out , you can only type so fast, but it's nice to be able to continue to type and do your foreground tasks while in the background your photo editing software is batch processing the 200 pictures you took at the park that day. In the HPC and academic computing worlds, massive parallelism will be the future for many projects, even as individual core performance continues to increase

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    For now, it doesn't

    It's a software issue. I can build one heck of a cluster in my basement with cheap PCs and any number of Linux distros, but the software that can really take advantage of such a cluster isn't generally available at Staples. Or off the shelf at all in too many cases. As David mentioned, the biggest place where we need to see further hardware innovation is in cooling, energy efficiency, and power density. We have the cores and they're pretty darned cheap already.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Smartphones maxed

    Let's look at smartphones: Has hardware innovation stopped?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    The improvements continue

    Multi-core CPUs, actual HD resolution displays, networking faster than many wired connections, and the beginnings of portable AI. I don???t think that innovation has stopped; perhaps some technologists have simply become jaded by the sudden wealth of smartphone options. Look at the history of mobile phone technology and consider what the phone will look like in a decade.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    It hasn't stopped completely, but how far can we go on 3G?

    As with most things, the real bottleneck isn't the hardware, it's the bandwidth and the software. Android continues to lack the smoothness and responsiveness of iOS, for example, even on very fast phones. Similarly, those great 4G phones that promise the latest data-centric applications and rich browsing that can rival a desktop experience are utterly hobbled by ubiquitous 3G networks (or by expensive data plans that are far more lucrative for the phone companies than the phones are for OEMs). It's a chicken and egg problem. Why push the hardware envelope when the largest group of users struggles with platform fragmentation and poor optimization or spotty data connections? Or, for that matter, can't afford the sort of data plans needed to take advantage of the latest apps?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Software and hardware advances

    Do you think that software adequately takes advantage of those hardware advances?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Not on the desktop/mobile side

    There are still cycles being left unused and with the exception of certain software verticals that need every erg of power they can get, idle hardware is common. It may not seem that way to the user, but many inefficiencies in software design and coding result in a failure to take full advantage of the underlying hardware

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    Nope - how much software is truly optimized for many cores?

    There's a reason that the big university computer science programs are partnering with the biggest Internet and software companies to build out massively parallel computing programs. There's also a reason that many desktop users are better off with 2 fast cores than 4 or 8 slower cores. Too much software still has not been optimized for advances in multicore technology or GPU processing. You can throw all the hardware you want at Word and it's still going to be Word. Curtis Cubicle can only type so fast.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    And the business side

    On the business technology side, what's hardware's standing? Big data, analytics and all of that seem to require some serious throughput. And Watson needs some heft too I guess.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    At the back end, hardware is king

    Raw computing power will always have its place, and one of those places is the corporate datacenter. Continued innovation in delivering better performing, more efficient hardware is driving product sales along with improved power efficiency, higher rack densities, and bigger pipes to deliver and gather data. Hardware innovation is alive and well at the backend, and it makes it easier for the end user to do their job. And that innovation is necessary for the success of the cloud, as well.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    None of which matter to Joe Datacruncher in his cubicle

    Throughput? You bet? Horsepower? Of course. In a data center. Increasingly on clusters of cheap computers. Supercomputers are the exception to the rule and data security concerns for most organizations dictate that crunching numbers on a laptop that can walk away in a train station is rarely an option any longer. Sure, there are content creators who rely on a high-end PCs, but the data center and, by extension, the cloud, is where companies are investing. Even there, though, the ability to take advantage of many cores and clustered computers is a software issue that needs addressing rather than a computing horsepower issue.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Kindle Fire, iPad

    So Kindle Fire and iPad are the model to emulate for consumers?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    In some ways

    Consider that the iPad was cutting edge hardware with a good ecosystem start from the iPhone app store. It was the combination of hardware and software that made it a success. The Kindle Fire gives the user mediocre hardware and relies on the Amazon ecosystem and a low price to make it a compelling purchase. If the iPad had mediocre hardware, it would have died outright. The Fire is dependent upon that aforementioned bandwidth and ease of connectivity in order to deliver its user experience. The "right" model for future development still needs to be defined.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    Yes, but more so the Fire

    The iPad remains too expensive, providing a premium experience for premium users. That's a fine place in the market and has worked like a champ for Apple. However, the Kindle provides a good experience combined with a huge content ecosystem and, perhaps more importantly, its Silk browser leverages cloud computing muscle to improve the browsing experience rather than relying on the fastest hardware. It's also hitting the right price points since Amazon knows it will make its money on content and software instead of commodity hardware. Only Apple can command the sorts of margins required to make money on hardware any more.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The consumer front

    On the consumer front, does hardware matter relative to software?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Not as much

    Though there will always be those of us who like cutting edge performance and capabilities or niche activities such as video and high end photo editing. But for most consumers the hardware needs to be invisible and not impact the user experience; it needs to be able to handle whatever the user (and the software) throws at it and respond quickly and accurately. This means it has to be powerful enough and efficient enough to provide a good user experience; instant on and immediate response

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    For a minority, yes...

    But for the majority? Not in the least. Look at console gaming. The gaming industry brings in many billions of dollars on new titles running on 5-year old hardware. The innovation is happening with the developers. The same goes for increasingly smart televisions and set-top boxes. They run Android or Linux on comparatively meager hardware (versus many desktop computers), but provide great experiences for consumers who, as their title implies, are more interested in consuming content than creating it. It doesn't take 8 cores to watch videos on YouTube, no matter what your resolution or screen size.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Cloud computing's role

    How does cloud computing change the hardware equation? Given your mention of bandwidth and battery.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It "clouds" the issue

    Cloud computing solutions for consumers are great until consumers realize that the infrastructure isnt in place to support every consumer moving key apps and requirements to cloud services. As ISPs continue to cap consumer bandwidth, the inability to utilize cloud services without additional cost will push people back to local resources. In my home near a major city, the ISP caps users to 250 GB/month in download, but at the home I have in the mountains, the only provider of fast Internet service caps users at 5 GB/month, which makes many current services useless if you do anything that streams video or data. Mobile users have to face current battery life issues; utilizing 4G technologies requires you to have a power outlet or spare batteries to make it through the day.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    It's the single biggest reason...

    ...that I believe hardware has lost any real importance to the majority of users. It changes the equation completely and utterly. The cloud runs quite happily on clusters of commodity hardware. Web browsers don???t need much in the way of processing or graphical power either, at least by modern PC standards with at least a couple of cores and several gigs of RAM. Again, incremental improvements in hardware will bring richer experiences as local computing power can augment cloud computing, but cloud-based software and programming is already much more important than anything happening on the desktop (or tablet, or whatever).

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Tapped out?

    As we've seen in the tablet market, hardware can be copied but the software saves the day. Are we tapped out on hardware---more or less---so that advances are merely incremental?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Not at all

    By its very nature hardware changes tend to be incremental, though major jumps are possible as long as new technologies are being developed. The tablet market has been somewhat unique; the first really successful player set the bar very high with the software side, so that competitors with better hardware but lessor software are having a difficult time competing. But if Apple doesnt up their hardware ante, they will eventually fall behind.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    The key word is average

    Obviously there is always room for advancement in hardware, but it???s increasingly irrelevant for most users. Incremental improvements in hardware will yield incremental improvements in the capabilities that software can exploit. However, most tablets, for example, can already show movies in full HD and support immersive gaming. Where else does the average consumer need to go? How about the average enterprise customer? This doesn???t just apply to tablets, but to all aspects of computing, setting aside the non-average exceptions.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's needed on the hardware front?

    It is true that we always view hardware through our current good enough prism. What developments would be game changers in your view?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It's all about power

    The number one game changer right now would be significantly improved battery technology. It's mobile devices that seem to have the highest profile at the moment, and they are completely constrained by power availability.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    3D and the ability to leverage graphical horsepower for hybrid apps

    Applications that leverage cloud computing scale running in a web browser and delivering far richer experiences (most obviously 3D) could be quite graphics intensive. Although a lot of heavy lifting can happen in the cloud, there could certainly be a place for some local horsepower. Perhaps the biggest barrier is bandwidth, though. If the ubiquitous broadband issues can be solved, then we'd have a game changer in the other direction, making local hardware even less relevant.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Testing 1, 2, 3

    Just doing a mike check.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Here

    And good to go

    David Chernicoff

    I am for It's alive and well

    I'm here

    Ready to go at it

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Hardware? Ho-hum

Closing Statements

Alive and well, enabling software

David Chernicoff

While it’s clear that for consumer solutions it is mainly about the user experience, which is a software driven aspect of product design, it can’t be forgotten that merely adequate hardware does not make for a good long-term user experience. If for that reason alone, continued hardware innovation is critical.

It’s also obvious from our debate that continued hardware development in the areas of battery technology, mobile data delivery, and general networking bandwidth delivery are lynchpins in the continued growth of cloud services and mobile devices, two of the fastest growing technology sectors.

And I don’t believe that there was ever any question that continued technological development for datacenter hardware, upon which the cloud and related services will live, will continue to allow the growth of current and the development of future cloud technologies.

In short, hardware innovation is alive and well. While much, at the moment, might seem to be behind the scenes, it is still going on and enabling software to realize its developers’ dreams.
 

No awesome new advances

Christopher Dawson

Never have we seen more evidence that we are truly in a “post-PC era.” While hardware manufacturers are pushing ultrabooks hard at CES this year, the only place where exciting developments are actually occurring is in the cloud. In all seriousness, will you be buying an $1100 ultrabook? Because this isn’t just a post-PC era, it’s post-recession 2012, when value is king and businesses that want to compete must cut corners and introduce efficiencies wherever possible.

Consumers as well love their gadgets, but need those gadgets to be inexpensive, have solid ecosystems, great battery life, and access the web at high speed. While hardware innovation is tied up in this, the real story is software and Internet infrastructure, not awesome new advances in hardware. And frankly, awesome new advances have, appropriately, gone by the wayside in favor of evolutionary platform advances.

Practically a draw

Lawrence Dignan

As much as I agree with Dawson that hardware doesn't matter---and ultimately won't---I have to go with Chernicoff. I'm not about to say that hardware development is tapped out yet. In fact, if I had the option I'd call this debate a draw since both and Chris and David made good points. As we stand today, however, I declare Chernicoff the winner.

 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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