Could the Cloud’s growth mean the end for hardware?

Do you remember when you had things? An alarm clock, a torch. DVDs, a radio, maps, photo albums, USB sticks, laptops full of files. Those first two are now apps on your smartphone; who doesn’t wake themselves up in the morning using their phone? The rest have been replaced by the likes of Netflix, Spotify, Google Maps and Dropbox, all of them cloud-powered. All of them virtual services.

So who needs hardware anymore? It’s a question asked equally as urgently in the business world, where physical assets are quickly being abandoned in favour of pay-as-you-go, cloud-powered services. Entire offices used to need licence codes from Microsoft and Adobe. Now offices buy cloud software as a service (SaaS), rent infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and consider platform as a service (PaaS), too.

The abandonment of hardware is having a huge effect. In the consumer world, people are upgrading their handsets less often. The smartphone market is almost saturated, with sales expected to decline by 3.7 percent this year, according to Gartner. Who changes their phone every three months, as they used to a decade ago?

The reason for this seemingly unstoppable trend is simple; why buy a new phone, server, or software when the core services are constantly being upgraded? Phones get free over-the-air firmware updates periodically from the cloud, both for apps and the hardware itself, while cloud capacity jumps and dips as business needs require, and cloud software gets constantly improved and pushed to each user.

As the cloud gets faster, the anti-hardware movement will galvanise. With the coming era of a 5G-powered mobile cloud, massive amounts of software will be able to be sent and auto-installed in armies of remote devices, and for virtually no cost. The Internet of Things will massively accelerate this trend still further; every one of the thousands of devices on a smart city-style traffic system or street lighting network could be updated in minutes.

But there’s a problem with the ‘death of hardware’ argument.

Time has been called on black boxes too many times before, but still there are huge launch events for phones that accentuate a radical new feature, and hundreds of new gadgets still go on sale every week. IoT device manufacturers routinely promise new connected devices that can communicate in new ways, or protect against security threats no-one had thought of when last year’s version was released. The world of smart devices is about far more than just firmware updates.

Hardware isn’t dead at all. Over the year’s we’ve been promised myriad boxes that claim to be the ‘one box to rule them all’. Take the giveaway name of the Xbox. Even the recent Xbox One release was touted by Microsoft as being revolutionary for the living room. The subtext was obvious; far from being just a games console, this product is the only one you need for watching TV, spinning Blu-ray discs and using apps. Other ‘home hub’ devices from the likes of Apple, Google and Roku have promised the same, as have smart TV makers. Perhaps the weakest link in these gadgets – and for the games consoles in particular – is the cripplingly long firmware updates.

Anyone who’s switched-on an Xbox or PlayStation to be faced with unavoidable 15-minute delays while a probably meaningless update installs, doubtless doesn’t use their console as much as they could.

And yet there almost certainly will be another drive to produce a home hub that makes equally grand promises about its potentially central position our digital lives. As the smart home slowly becomes a reality and the devices around us (lights, TVs, fridges and cars) begin exchanging data with each other and the cloud, there will be a land-grab to produce a hub device to coordinate it all. My money is on the brands already in your home; ISPs, digital TV providers, telcos.

Hardware won’t always be so central in our lives, but it won’t be the cloud that kills it. That will be augmented reality and advanced holographics, which will change the way we interact with computers at a base level (see Magic Leap’s stunning concepts). So next time someone talks-up the firmware update culture and talks about the ‘death of hardware’, tell them to put their head in the cloud.

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