The Power of Commodity Hardware (or Why Microsoft Loves Dell)

by Matthew Russell

I tend to be way too cerebral. I spend a ton of time keeping up with the latest research related to my profession, reading nerdy books, working logic puzzles, tinkering around with pet projects, etc. At least once a week, however, I try to set aside some time for creative activities such as brainstorming in hopes of restoring some balance to my mind.

Here's one topic that I've noticed always comes up on my brainstorming list: What's the next great piece of software going to be?

By the Church-Turing thesis, it's believed that anything you can describe can be implemented as a piece of software (go ahead and try to disprove the thesis -- I dare you), so this gives us a lot of options. I find this particular topic interesting because although we have a surplus of software out there, only a fraction of it truly qualifies as innovative and useful. If you don't believe me, go out to MacUpdate sometime and take a look for yourself.

But the problem at hand isn't because there's a shortage of developers. There are tons of code mongers out there that would love to pump out an implementation and make the big bucks if it weren't for one little thing -- a clever idea. In fact, there's only one characteristic about the idea itself that's even worth mentioning: it just needs to be capable of spiking a demand. In a free market, the supply will rise out of the depths to meet the demand, someone will rake in the cash for a while, eventually the idea itself will become more of a commodity, and then everyone ends up living happily ever after. Well, sort of.

Although we're talking about software here, you can't help but bring hardware into the discussion. As an example, what good would iPhoto be if digital cameras weren't a commodity? You wouldn't honestly arrange your clip art in iPhoto would you? I suppose you could go to the trouble of scanning in all of your images, but even then, we're back to talking about a piece of hardware that the software leans on: a high performance scanner that's designed to mass import your photos, or maybe even a device that takes negatives and pumps out a digital image.

In any event, if digital cameras weren't hot commodities, you could bet that the designers of photo apps would be doing some serious analysis of some other market -- whichever one supplies the next best piece of hardware that would make their application useful to the masses. We could take another step back and divert into a discussion of physics since that's really the next step back (what empowers our hardware), but I think you get the idea.

Although it's easy to overlook, the hardware/software relationship is a pretty important one to notice. You couldn't have an e-mail client or web browser without the internet infrastructure in place. You wouldn't have bleeding-edge games coming to the market in droves if it weren't for the uber-accelerated graphics cards that are available, and you certainly wouldn't have operating systems as ravenous for resources such as Vista finally crawling out if manufacturers such as Dell weren't able to mass produce systems capable of running all of that bloatware.

So here's my question to you: What's the state of the market right now? Are we saturated with useful software until a truly cutting edge new piece of hardware is introduced? Or do we have plenty of hardware and it's just that application developers aren't thinking outside the box enough?

What piece of software is missing from the marketplace that you'd like to see, and what hardware commodity is stopping it from getting there?


2005-10-24 02:34:34
There are tons of code mongers out there that would love to pump out an implementation and make the big bucks if it weren’t for one little thing – a clever idea.

This is a myth. If ideas were the problem, MacUpdate would be full of similar but excellent applications, but that is not the case. As Paul Graham recently wrote, there is no market for ideas, which must mean there is no demand for them. The inevitable conclusion is that ideas are worth nothing.

The value is in good execution of an idea. These code mongers are not rich, because, as you will probably agree, the vast majority of offerings at MacUpdate are of mediocre quality at best. Few are capable of creating truly excellent software, so few get rich that way.

Ideas have nothing to do with it.

2005-10-24 05:30:59
Ideas have nothing to do with it.

I think you have a lot of good points, and I too tend to agree with most of what Paul Graham says. Good ideas can definitely bust if they're not executed properly, and there's a lot more to execution than just writing the code. And I do agree that there are a lot of good ideas on Mac Update that are mediocre at best. Patton once said that a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next week -- doesn't seem that the same logic applies to software development, does it?

But, with that said, I still think there's an idea shortage in the department of what I'll describe as "truly innovative." When I say "truly innovative", what that means to me is the kind of stuff that Ambrosia or Rogue Amoeba pumps out. SnapzProX and Audio Hijack Pro are definitely in a class of their own. They're ahead of their time even though they shouldn't be. And that's the problem: maybe they shouldn't be.

Those companies were able to take standard hardware and squeeze one last drop of blood out of it. But I will point out that in addition to being innovative, they also do a superb job of execution. So my question then in this (interesting) dialog would be this:

Can anyone name 5-10 "truly innovative" (subject to your own interpretation) apps that are out there that busted because of poor execution vice being a poor idea. Do everyone a favor and point them out if you do. Users will be happy since they'll get good software, and hopefully, the developers will realize the error of their ways, do it right, make money, pay taxes, etc. If they don't, I'm sure someone will scoop it up.

Really, what are some million dollar ideas that a "code monger" could execute if done properly?

And/Or in addition to that, what cutting edge piece of new hardware would pave the way for a whole new niche of apps? Are we saturated with our cameras, sound cards, video cards, and bluetooth cell phones?

2005-10-24 08:45:09
Can anyone name 5-10 "truly innovative" (subject to your own interpretation) apps that are out there that busted because of poor execution vice being a poor idea.

Well, this is a good idea, let's see how well it can be handled ! And it could make the whole article more than an elegant (innovative ?) way of bitching Microsoft once again ;-)

My first idea would be Pages ... The idea of making a template based - simple - page layout editor is something to be praised. But some functions are very awkward, some inexistent and some still in beta phase. And my god is it heavyweight. But I love it.

2005-10-24 09:06:28
And it could make the whole article more than an elegant (innovative ?) way of bitching Microsoft once again ;-)

Don't underestimate my sneakiness :) (From Mr. Deeds)

2005-10-24 10:55:02
I know the iSight isn't exactly new, but with it's recent inclusion as a default part of the new iMac's, I think we will be seeing more and more software that makes use of it.

'Usual' stuff like some of the security software that turns a web cam into an automated security cam, as well as much more innovative ideas like Delicious Library's use of the iSight as a bar code reader. When I first read that iSights were going to be included in iMac's I couldn't help but think that maybe the age of the video phone was finally about to arrive. Not sure if that's a good thing or not, but still.

There's also that facial recognition software that was being talked about in another O'Reilly article.

What about hand gestures to control your Mac? Volume up/down, next/previous song, etc.

2005-10-24 11:17:29
I wouldn't consider digital cameras to be a commodity.

A commodity is something where you can simply order "a camera" or "a PC" and not care what company made it, because they are all the same.

So a Dell PC is not significantly different from a HP or Gateway PC. They are all boring looking boxes that run Windows. (Laptops are significantly more differentiated).

Cameras are sufficiently different from each other that I would not say "I want a camera", or even "I want a DSLR" or "I want a digital point and shoot". The interfaces and designs are sufficiently different that I will say "I want the Canon D5 DSLR" or "I want a Canon Digital Elph" or whatever.

But they are common, and cheap (well, not the D5 but you get the idea), and that makes iPhoto viable.

Commoditization just makes products dull, and I hope it never happens for cameras. I wish it had never happened for computers, but ... at least we have Apple.


2005-10-24 11:24:50
I use it and really love the way it's designed. It has the best implementation of style sheets I've ever seen.

I think it's too early to consider it a failure, since it really, really needs Numbers.

Steve Jobs and crew definitely my heroes when it comes to software development. Apple has a truly amazing record in building applications that are slick, stylish and fun to work with. If you need to prove that, just try using Macromedia Flash after running Motion for a while :-(.

It's unfair to a great crew to personalize Apple's software development so much, but it's hard to ignore that Apple started putting out truly great software again when our pal Steve took the helm.

I can't wait to get my hands on Aperture, either. Thank goodness for Educational discounts (I work for a university) or I couldn't afford it.

I just find it amazing that with all the resources Adobe and other companies bring to the table, all the true, radical innovation in the last few years has come from Apple.


2005-10-24 15:32:09
That's an interesting thought, but I wonder how useful it would actually be in practice? There could definitely be some major implications for improving accessibility for certain crowds of people -- that's for sure. But what would your hands do in the air better or more conveniently than your hands could on your keyboard or mouse? If we can answer that question (and get an idea) then I feel quite confident that the hand gestures could go some place.

See, this sort of takes me back to the whole point of the post...

2005-10-24 15:38:02
I was thinking of a commodity as an item (in some form) that's cheap enough and readily available enough to be consumed by the masses. But you bring up a really good point, and you're right -- at least we have Apple!
2005-10-24 16:01:42
Ah, well I was actually thinking of something more like a remote control if you're sitting across the room and want to change the music (or video, sometime soon) that the mac is playing. I've tried using the voice control before, but that never seemed to work very well while music was playing.
2005-10-24 16:17:42
Innovation is brewing. How about using gestures as a TV remote? iMacs are obviously moving toward being that ultimate multimedia appliance. Throw a TV card onto it (or hopefully it'll start coming with them soon) and you'd have a nice way of flipping channels.
2005-10-26 04:58:07
It’s unfair to a great crew to personalize Apple’s software development so much, but it’s hard to ignore that Apple started putting out truly great software again when our pal Steve took the helm.

Well, he is the one who made the greatness possible.

But I wouldn’t ascribe it to him personally. Steve’s role is that of any very good manager: he is what in sports would be the coach. A great coach finds the best players, works out their abilities, and puts them in the positions where they can use them to maximum effect considering the team as a whole.

The software at Apple is great because the people who write it are great developers; Steve’s role is putting them in the right positions.

So yes, he plays a key role; but it wouldn’t happen without the involvement of all the talent we rarely get to hear about.

2005-10-26 05:06:56
But, with that said, I still think there’s an idea shortage in the department of what I’ll describe as “truly innovative.” When I say “truly innovative”, what that means to me is the kind of stuff that Ambrosia or Rogue Amoeba pumps out. SnapzProX and Audio Hijack Pro are definitely in a class of their own.

Those aren’t truly innovative ideas. They’re all pretty obvious stuff.

Insanely great software follows a simple recipe: define a simple need (or want), then solve it really really well. Your examples fall in that category. So does Pages, which someone else mentioned. Really, most of Apple’s software. Or think of Google. Firefox.

You don’t succeed by doing interesting stuff. You succeed by doing simple stuff really, really, really well. You need ideas for how to do it better than it has been done, sure, but you need many of them, and none of them individually is worth a million dollars. Putting the many little ideas together into a coherent whole is what counts.

In other words, execution.