Although it probably won’t spark as much debate as his previous article, our main man Thought comes back swinging this week with a topic that is too often forgotten in the mobile hardware race: software. So sit back and enjoy his ruminations on how a killer application can mean more than processor speed or megapixels.
In the early days of the cell phone almost all of the emphasis was on hardware design advancement, and for good reason. We went from bag phones to brick phones to flip phones. I remember when one major selling point of a new phone was that it had a two line dot matrix display rather than just a one line dot matrix display. We went from the flip phone to the StarTac to the RAZR. Displays went from monochromatic to color. Phones started coming with cameras built in and that started a whole new trend.
In the smartphone arena, the Treo 600 first set the standard for devices that were more than just phones, but were in many ways small portable computers, with email and web browsing integrated into a single platform. Our beloved BlackBerry led the way with the most usable small keyboards for text input.
Of course the software developed too, but it always seemed that it was the quest for smaller or more fully featured hardware that drove the market. Most of us paid more attention to the design of a new phone rather than the software inside.
I believe we may be entering a point where from now on it will be the software development that is the prime driver of the mobile device market. It seems that in hardware design, so many of the designs have hit their logical end point. For instance, how much thinner or smaller can one make the flip phone (or for that matter, the candy bar or slider phone)?
With regards to the BlackBerry, I also wonder if there is really much design iteration that can be done to either the candy bar style 81xx series or the small tablet style of the 83xx or 88xx series. Undoubtedly there will be refinements, but again, you can only get so much smaller in your dimensions, or more rounded along the edges.
One observation that many technology writers have made in reviewing the iPhone is that the device shifts the argument away from hardware to software. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the iPhone, I do believe this is a valid point. The iPhone is basically one large screen driven by software.
But Apple is not the only company to understand the importance of software. The major ingredient to the BlackBerry’s success lies in its software. It is the push email and synchronization with enterprise platforms like Exchange Server that has driven the success of the BlackBerry, and of course that is a function of software. One could easily argue that in the mobile device world that RIM has understood the importance of software development more so than anyone else. Palm used to get it, but now is stuck in a time warp with an outdated operating system. Microsoft is stuck making software that is unstable and unfriendly.
What separates one personal computer from another in today’s world is more so the software than the hardware design. Just like with the personal computer, I believe that software will be the main differentiator in products in the smartphone market. The hardware that will count will be the power of the chips inside that set the limits on what the software can do. If the major battle is on the software side, I like RIM’s chances.