Is The Age Of Software Over? Not Even Close


San Francisco is about to take a beating. At least, if you believe noted technology pundit Michael S. Malone. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Malone, who has covered technology for over 30 years, posits the end of “the gestalt of the programmer,” citing an impending “Era of Devices” that “will be led by builders” that are “older, with a family, suburban and pragmatic.” 

The only problem with this argument is that it’s wrong. Completely wrong.

The Rise Of The Machines

Well,`maybe not “completely.” Malone is spot on when he argues that hardware is relevant again. Not necessarily big hardware, in the shape of servers or data centers, but rather lots of itty-bitty devices stitched together to form the Internet of Things. That sensor on your tractor. The FitBit you wear to bed. 

All these devices matter. 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Malone gets confused by these bright and shiny objects, totaling billions of new devices: 

For nearly two decades since the beginning of the dot-com boom, the Valley has been dominated by software. We have lived in the Era of Code—and with it the gestalt of the programmer. This person is young, single, urban, visionary and utopian: the frat boy turned tycoon. But that era is ending, as a cycle of hardware begins to assert itself in the form of watches, wearables, mobile health, autonomous cars, drones, 3-D printing and a revolution in sensors—all tied together by the cloudlike Internet of Things.

We are entering the Era of Devices. This will be led by builders: older, with a family, suburban and pragmatic. This will undoubtedly result in a Valley more like that of the calculator and PC eras in its style, people and attitudes, and a break from the increasingly protested-against titans of social networking.

This is a great vision for old fogies like me (I am, after all, 41). And there is some reason to believe in the transcendence of hardware and its shift to the Valley, away from San Francisco: Google’s Glass and self-driving cars; Tesla’s electric vehicles and Apple’s beautiful iStuff.

Such visions, however, miss the software-defined forest for the hardware-defined trees. 

Connecting The Machines With Software

None of the hardware mentioned matters very much without compelling software. Apple’s iRise wasn’t fueled by pretty devices so much as iTunes. Google’s Glass is both cool and obnoxious because of the software services enabling it through the Internet. And so on.

As Red Hat’s Krishnan Subramanian told me:

I disagree with any argument that role of software will be reduced in the IoT world. If anything, it opens up more surface area for more advanced software to be created. I agree it opens up newer devices market but not at the cost of software.

After all, that Internet of Things? It’s not so much a matter of hardware as it is the software-defined services that pull it together. As I’ve written, we’re going to need millions of developers to build out IoT, and most of those developers are software developers. 

Is there money to be made in hardware? Sure. But the smart hardware companies—companies like Bosch—will push for standardization so they can capitalize on services revenue. As I’ve noted, companies that see themselves as pure hardware manufacturers are likely doomed. But those that see beyond the “things” to instead focus on the services built on the “Internet,” the future is very bright.

Are we entering a golden age of hardware? Absolutely. But why is it golden? Because it’s colored by a golden era of software. Or, as Pivotal’s Andrew Clay Shafer suggests, “bet long on software.”

Lead image by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

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