CES: Worse Products Through Software

Watching the CES coverage out of the corner of my Internet eye, I’m reminded of exactly how bad most hardware makers are at writing software. Mat Honan summed it up nicely last month: No One Uses Smart TV Internet Because It Sucks. Amen to that. But it’s not just TVs. Who really likes the “software” in their car, microwave, or blu-ray player?

All of this software is terrible in the same handful of ways. It’s buggy, unresponsive, and difficult to use. I actually think the second sin is the worst one, especially when it comes to appliances and consumer electronics. Dials and knobs respond to your touch right now. Anything that wants to replace them had better also do so. But just try finding and watching a YouTube video on your TV and see how far you get before your brain checks out. It’s faster to get up off the couch and walk to a computer—or, you know, whip out your iPhone.

The companies out there that know how to make decent software have been steadily eating their way into and through markets previously dominated by the hardware guys. Apple with music players, TiVo with video recording, even Microsoft with its decade-old Xbox Live service, which continues to embarrass the far weaker offerings from Sony and Nintendo. (And, yes, iOS is embarrassing all three console makers.)

Companies that make physical products that have only recently started sprouting sophisticated software features all find themselves in a similar bind. The obvious solution is to just make better software. If only. I have little faith that these companies are willing and able to transform themselves in the radical ways required to produce and support great software. Here’s what I see happening instead.

The long-term success of these companies now hinges on how difficult it is to create the hardware product that’s wrapped around their crappy software. Car makers, for example, are probably safe from software upstarts (if not from other car makers). The barrier to entry in the auto industry is immense, and the remaining successful car makers have deep expertise in their craft. If Tesla succeeds, for example, it won’t be because MyFord Touch is slow and unintuitive.

TV makers, on the other hand, should be worried. Most of the hardware they make is already a component of the industries dominated by the software guys. The proliferation of “smart” TV features is fueled by the fear of becoming a mere component supplier. Unfortunately for the companies involved, the terrible quality of these features may actually end up hastening the transitions from “TV maker” to “panel maker.”

At this point, the only thing keeping the hounds at bay is the reality that a TV with non-crappy software requires a much deeper cooperation with content providers. So while Apple can whip up a TV running iOS in its sleep, giving that software something useful to do requires talking to content owners—and possibly also cable companies and ISPs, who are even more keen to keep the content owners in their camp, and who have barriers to entry that the auto industry would die for. And this is before even considering the fragmentation of TV and Internet access in the US and around the world.

The hardware barriers that protect ISPs and car makers will probably hold up (much to our detriment, in the case of US ISPs), but I think the TV content owners will eventually come around—or be routed around. When that happens, the market for formerly “software-neutral” hardware devices like TVs will rapidly follow the same path as the mobile phone market. If it happens soon enough, it may even be the same familiar handful of companies that gobble up all the losers: Apple, Samsung, Google, maybe even Microsoft.

Until then, we’ll all just have to suffer through—or find a way to ignore—this avalanche of software that’s slowly making our a/v equipment, appliances, and vehicles more annoying to use.