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Is software beyond hardware?

Posted by felipegaucho on February 6, 2008 at 12:14 PM PST

The discussion started in my JUG mailing list, where some
members started celebrating the availability of href=''>YouTube for Mobile
Devices, including remarkable advances of the nowadays gadgets, like
the supposedly revolutionary features of IPhone and a lot of
other technologies.

The aftermath of the flame produced some insights I would like
to share with you, but not before a context quiz:

  1. When the keyboard was invented?
  2. When the mouse was invented?
  3. How frequently you run applications in your cell phone? If
    not much, why?
  4. How many pages you can type in a small device before to hit
    it in the wall?
  5. How many hours - compared to your TV or your computer - you
    spend using your mobile devices? If not much, why?
  6. Which is more expensive in your working place: your computer
    or your chair?
  7. When was the last time you updated or replaced a software?
  8. When was the last time you updated or replaced a hardware?
  9. Pervasive computing means you to carry everything in your
    pocket? If not, why you still carrying it?

So, if you start looking around and thinking of what your are
using, perhaps you share my perception about the gap between hardware
and software. Few more thoughts and you realize the different velocity
some technologies are adopted comparing to others, and the obvious
commercial side-effects.

One of the key points of our discussion was about powerful
tools of mobile devices and the real adoption of such features. No
doubt modern cell phones can seduce you with those colored keys,
multimedia features and fancy design... but think twice, how
frequently you actually use it for something you really need?

The hardware hurts you

A short survey gave us the impression about the most popular
features of mobile devices: SMS, GPS and - of course - the phone. We
could not identify the adoption of anything much beyond those basic
functionalities. Despite all arguments used to justify why the
revolutionary features are not being adopted in large scale by end
user, I have a strong feeling about the main reason: the hardware is
just boring. The hardware hurts you, it destroys your body and your
patience, and doesn't matter your expectations about the next cell
phone xyz99, it will come with a newer version of the same too small
buttons, tiring screen and probably it will be just a replacement of
your current walkman. Keyboards? Come on, when was the last time you
invest real money in a keyboard? Cheapest seems to be the
most successfully brand in the keyboards market. Mouse? Do you really
like it? And what about the furniture? Do you really believe the
designer/architect who designed your chair spends 12 hours coding
every day? eheh, I guess not, the artistic designer is probably more
busy thinking about colors and other very important details. Important
for sale, I guess :)

Innovation == renovation?

Thinking about the last 30 years (sorry, more than that I
should be born again), I can remember real revolutions in movies,
image, sound, software. From computer technology, hardware evolved a
lot, including astronomical amount of memory we use nowadays and the
allucinogenous CPU velocity. But about design, it is a bit hard to
defend. While we wait for the Quantum Physics to offer us another
computer model, we seem to be locked in old paradigms. I would like
not to go so far in science because it is just a blog, but returning
to the subject of our mundane gadgets I guess we are waiting too long
for better devices, aren't we?

I must confess the discussion was quite interesting and I
pretty sure about its controversial side-effects, but instead of
bothering you more about my insights, I prefer to leave these ideas
open for discussion. Perhaps you can show me other perspective,
something to convince me to give a second chance to try the cell

A wish for my next cell phone

I want my cell phone to read my email messages for me, and I
want to have a chance to speak the responses or new messages while the
phone converts the sound in text messages.

It seems better than another five different ways to manipulate
the renewed versions of the same icons through the same buttons :)

Pictures copied from href=''>Wikipedia for
non-commercial purposes ;)
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I've never understood the whole "mobile device" hype. The people who want us to replace a fullsize keyboard and the computer attached to it (which in my case can be anything from a laptop to a 20 kilo tower) with a cellphone have never had to use a computer seriously. Same with the people who think we should "talk to our computer" and have it understand what we mean, they've obviously never used a computer for something more taxing than word processing (and without layout, no headers, columns, embedded graphics, etc.).

Small devices have their place, but it's not as a replacement for fullsize computers. They're just too cumbersome to use as such (just as a large computer is too cumbersome to use as a filofax or telephone).

My cellphones are used solely as phones, with the occasional SMS thrown in (but when those SMS messages get to be longer conversations, I switch to just calling the person, far easier than twisting your fingers into impossible patterns to slowly over several minutes type a 20 word message).

And there's the problem with "mobile devices", they're simply too small to be comfortable to use for more than a single purpose, and a purpose at that that can be achieved with just a few button presses.

The reality is that computer hardware is a consumable, like printer cartriges just over a somewhat longer time scale. The question I ask myself is not "how much does this mac cost", but rather "how much am I spending per year to keep myself 'in' mac". (hardware, OS upgrades, software, peripherals, backup hard disk, ...) In my case I imagine it works out to about $1000/year all told.


I think I don’t agree with you about the use of small devices. I don’t have a notebook because I think I don’t need one, but I decided to buy a Palm two years ago and I’m very happy with it.

I use Java applications in my cell phone, if you count games. Of course, there is also the Gmail app, but I don't use it, except in very unusual situations (I used it some weeks ago to get the phone number a friend sent to me by e-mail, to call him to come drink some beers in the bar I was at that moment).

I use my Palm Tungsten E2 a lot, mainly in the basic tools: schedule, tasks, notes (I never use paper to take small notes), phones (but those I usually save in the cell phone, not in the Palm). Oh, and of course there are a bunch of games in my Palm too. I play, my wife also and even my 8 y.o. daughter play games in my Palm. Every night I can't sleep without playing my Solitaire-like game in the Palm. I started to develop a small personal finance control software for my Palm, but it's not finished yet... ok, I know there are dozens of this kind of software around, but first I wanted to use it to study J2ME and also I didn't like the free software I've found for this task.

I used some times my Palm to access web sites through my phone, connecting via bluetooth.

Other use I have is to take pictures in my phone and transfer them to my Palm (bluetooth or IR), where the screen is bigger and I can see the details better. Later I transfer the pictures to my computer from the Palm. I don’t have the cell phone cable, because it costs more than the phone here in Brazil.

About your comments that it's hard to write messages with more than very few words in the phone, you have several options: to use the cell phones with "big" keyboards (compared with the basic one), you can use external keyboards (I have an IR keyboard for my Palm), you can develop the ability to hand-write text in the Palm with the pen (it's not that hard) and you need to try T9 in you cell phone, it really make you write much more in less time.

I've always (sorta) lamented that if I'd been a carpenter instead of a software developer, with all of the money I've spent on hardware over the years, I'd have a shop comparable to Norm Abrams rather than having a single Mac Pro under my desk and a garage filled with "toxic e-waste".

I've spent good money on both keyboards and mice. They're important. I spent, what, $100 on the original MS Natural Keyboard Back In the Day when they came out, and I used it for...umm...8-9 years before it finally gave up the ghost. Now I'm running a POS because my MS Bluetooth one imploded.

I bought my Mac Pro with the distinct goal of keeping it for as long as possible, as, frankly, it's hard to see me outgrowing that machine. With the capacity of TBs of storage, and 16GB of Ram, plus 4 cores (expandable to 8) even Java development is hard pressed to out grow that machine.

I seriously can imagine getting 10 years out of this machine. Despite Moore's law, the curve is flattening out (as witnessed by the jump from GHz to cores). I don't forsee anything revolutionary happening on the hardware side that will grant a major increase in throughput on my machine for some time.

And I don't forsee having any gross need that will have me outgrowing this machine either. Anything that needs that much more CPU I'll farm out to VMs at Amazon or wherever.

And this is all good. I HATE buying computer hardware. It's good money consumed readily, and holds its value worse than an '80s Oldsmobile. Hell, I can sell my '88 motorcycle for 2/3rds it's (non-inflation adjusted) buying price. (I bought the motorcycle with money I got from selling my 128K Macintosh...$3K down to $700 in 3 years...)

Perfectly good and functional computer hardware has literally no value at all after a short time with the speed of the computer industry. So you better get your value out of it quickly.

My first cell phone lasted 4 YEARS. I only got rid of it because a new battery cost more than a new phone (which was effectively free), and it was becoming hard to find. The industry obsoleted my phone, not me. My wifes phone has a weak battery, and we'll most likely simply replace it rather than get a new battery for the same reason. It's also several years old.

I'm waiting for the new iPhone SDK, to see what it can and can't do. Once that's done (assuming positive results) I'll probably near term get one of those, mostly because it's a small computer with a phone, it will have a HUGE aftermarket, and should have really good longevity (5 years easy I think, with basically having to keep up on the battery).

I welcome the stability of the hardware market.