I've been writing about technology for over 10 years. Casting my mind back to halcyon days, technology heavyweights were historically keen to promulgate speeds and feeds, where, say, a 1GHz processor was simply better than the competition's lacklustre, anaemic 800MHz offering. These tech companies rolled out media-savvy engineers to extol the benefits of a certain architecture, usually accompanied by in-depth discussions of pipelines, caches, and ROPs, in the hope of convincing end-users that it's technology, pure and simple, that drives sales.
It's user experience that counts
Now, however, these same tech companies spend serious dollars in advancing and marketing 'user experience' as the key selling factor, with the underpinning technology detailed as a mere afterthought. Apple has ably demonstrated that a successful technology company sells a brand, a lifestyle choice, more than an eclectic selection of computer parts: many would-be users don't care what's inside an iPhone 4S or latest-generation iPad; they simply want into the brand, no matter how many restrictions the proprietary hardware and software imposes upon them.
Consider smartphones for a moment. Most potential purchasers justifiably want the best-possible experience from a device that's hugely personal. Should a well-informed reader opt for a Samsung Galaxy S3 or Apple iPhone 4S? Perhaps another device is just as competent and manifestly cheaper?
I want to be adored
Coming back to technology, the companies that develop the brains of a smartphone - Qualcomm, NVIDIA, TI, Samsung, et al - want to be recognised in their own right, and these multi-billion-dollar firms are actively seeking ways to differentiate themselves from one another.
I'm currently at Uplinq 2012, a Qualcomm-sponsored event designed for developers. Having covered Intel, AMD and NVIDIA for more years than I care to remember I find it interesting to see how Qualcomm markets itself as a company.
Qualcomm provides the system-on-chip (SoC) hardware behind the majority of Android and all Windows Phone smartphones. The overarching remit of Uplinq is to encourage developers to compile Snapdragon-specific apps. This means going against the grain of the one-fits-all Android philosophy by authoring manufacturer-orientated code. Qualcomm believes that the benefits of specific coding, made easier by the release of a software development kit (SDK), will enable developers to differentiate their apps and therefore offer something better to the end-user than, for example, a generic software build for TI or Intel can. Ventures such as Fast Computer Vision (FastCV) and AllJoyn are Qualcomm-lead initiatives designed to tie developers into optimising for its particular platform.
But while the end-user experience will undoubtedly be better for a platform that is heavily optimised, I'm not so keen on the idea. Developers want to make as much money as possible, obviously, and putting resources behind a company that has the dominant position for Windows Phone and lion's share for Android makes sense in the case of Qualcomm. NVIDIA and Intel are sure to woo the same developers, most likely with financial incentive, into writing optimised code for their Android platform(s). Wasn't it all supposed to be about doing things the non-Apple way, offering consumers a guaranteed level of features and one-time, across-the-board updates for a myriad of devices? And, really, shouldn't it be up to the handset-makers to undertake differentiation through better screens, more-intuitive controls and a slicker interfaces?
The questions I'm posing you, readers, is whether it makes sense for chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm to go their own way and entice developers to code for a particular ARM-based architecture? Would you purchase a smartphone or tablet if it had 'Snapdragon or Tegra 3 Inside,' if doing so provided a qualitatively better experience? And will your next smartphone purchase be dictated by the interaction of the hardware/software inside? Adding some further spice into the mix, is it right for Google (Nexus 7) and Microsoft (Surface) to play the hardware guy, too?