The secret behind the Apple iPad 2’s success

December 14, 2011

Recently, I got into a little argument on Twitter with some folks in the technology industry about hardware. More specifically, about whether impressive hardware specifications really matter in the age of the app.

I believe that hardware specs — speed, memory, screen size — do make a difference, but that difference can take you only so far.

Although CPU speed and RAM might dictate what’s possible to do with a gadget, developers and designers now have to actually deliver on those promises. Take, for example, the disparity between the iPad 2, which has a 1-GHz CPU, and most new Android tablets, which run far faster than that.

Would anyone who has used both devices argue that the experience of the Android tablet is superior to that of the iPad 2? Doubtful.

The more I thought about this question of hardware vs. software, the more intrigued I became about the future of our technology and how it will develop in the next five or 10 years.

Since the personal computer was invented, we’ve been in a kind of space race when it comes to the speed, storage and memory of machines. Sure, software has always been a component of selling these systems, but when it comes to proving your value, it was all about specs.

But something odd has happened in the past few years. As we’ve started to interact more closely with our technology, and our technology has become more personal, the focus has turned almost completely to the software — to apps and the experience.

The more we touch, shake and swipe our devices — and the more we think of those devices as intimate parts of our daily lives — the more the hardware has faded into the background.

Think about it — most phones these days are nothing more than a touch screen. Almost every interaction with the device is carried out directly with the software.

As the importance and relevance of great applications grows for our devices, the divide between the great experiences and the ones that leave you wanting is becoming clearer with each passing day.

You could almost argue that there’s a kind of fundamental split between the platforms that have been tailored to provide a consistent, elegant experience and those that have been left more open.

You can hedge your bets with a faster processor and larger screen all you want, but if the foundation for a great software experience doesn’t exist for users and developers, it’s likely that users will take their business elsewhere.

I recently took a trip to Microsoft to see research projects the company is working on. Some of those science experiments involved entire walls that were touch screens, “magic windows” that would let you peer into someone else’s house or office, and augmented reality systems that let you interact with seemingly real-world objects that you could view through only a tablet screen.

What struck me most about the experience of seeing these projects was that, although I was immersed in the action of using them, I never took a moment to think about the hardware.

What mattered standing in front of that touch-screen wall or playing that augmented-reality game was the pure experience. It was an extension of what I feel today when I dictate an e-mail into my smartphone, use a 3-D map of my surroundings to navigate somewhere, or take a photo and then have it magically appear in the cloud.

In the best cases — the best moments — with technology, the software experience allows us to extend and expand what we’re capable of doing.

In 10 years, it’s possible that the software and the experience will blur even further with what we do and how we do it — leading to a pure experience the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

When our entire environment can be interacted with, you won’t be thinking about the CPU speed, memory or screen size of a product.

You’ll just be thinking about how to get things done and move through the world.

The more advanced our products get, the more subtle and sophisticated our software has to be. Today, we’re just starting out with touch screens and voice recognition. Tomorrow, everything we touch might be an experience waiting to happen.

Let’s hope that the computer-makers that are touting specs today learn this lesson for the future: It’s the software, stupid.

Joshua Topolsky is founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site that debuted this fall, and the former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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