Hardware is becoming an increasingly important aspect of traditionally software-focused companies. Microsoft and Google have both introduced their own hardware over the last year, with the Surface tablets and Chromebook Pixel; Square recently announced the Square Stand, which turns an iPad into a cash register; and Adobe announced its own stylus and a “smart ruler” around the same time it said that its design products would only be available by subscription.
It’s doubtful that any of these companies got into the hardware business just for kicks; despite lower barriers to the hardware business, entering the physical realm is still a challenge. But why, then, are these companies building their own hardware even as they work to increase software’s role in our everyday lives? The answer, it seems, is that hardware is the best advertising platform available for their software.
Take the Surface tablets, for example. Microsoft is said to have sold a scant 900,000 units since the Surface RT was released in October 2012 — hardly a knock-out product that could turn Microsoft into a devices and services company.
But that hasn’t changed Microsoft’s commitment to hardware, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently telling MIT Technology Review that he is “super-glad we did Surface,” adding that “I think it is important—and not just for Microsoft, but for the entire Windows ecosystem—to see integrated hardware and software.” Surface is both a shift in Microsoft’s strategy and an attempt to show consumers and manufacturers that Windows is meant for more than bargain-bin hardware.
Google is doing something similar with the Chromebook Pixel and the Nexus-branded devices it co-develops with hardware partners. The Pixel is the first high-end computer to operate Google’s Chrome OS, and the first step towards creating a true Chrome OS ecosystem. And the Nexus products allow Google to demonstrate the virtues of stock Android, allowing the mobile operating system to reach consumers without being marred by manufacturers’ custom skins.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of Chrome, Apps, and Android, recently told Wired that “Any hardware projects we do [at Google] will be to push the ecosystem forward.” Even though Google is emphasizing hardware more than it ever has in the past, what with Glass, the Chromebook Pixel, the Nexus line, and, potentially, its own smartwatch, these efforts are meant to improve Google’s ability to provide users with information (and ads).
The company underscored hardware’s position in its future during the Google I/O keynote yesterday, where the only hardware-related news involved giving free Chromebook Pixel computers to attendees and bringing a “Nexus user experience” to the Samsung Galaxy S4.
And then there’s Square, the payments company that has had a tumultuous relationship with hardware from the beginning. Square first attracted attention due to its Card Reader, a thumbnail-sized device that took advantage of smartphones’ headphone jacks to simplify credit card-based payments. Then, once it had users’ financial information, it introduced Square Wallet (formerly Card Case and Pay with Square), which promised to allow users to pay with nothing but their faces.
Wallet has largely failed to gain traction, and has suffered from a disastrous rollout at Starbucks. Square simplified hardware so that it could kill it; failing that, it’s decided to “reinvent” the cash register… again. The original Card Reader showed consumers and businesses alike that Square is more convenient than traditional payments processors; maybe the Square Stand can keep those people hooked while Square continues to experiment and try to find ways to do away with hardware completely. (Or, at least, getting rid of registers and fumbling with cash or credit cards — credit cards are probably here to stay, at least in some form.)
Adobe’s stylus and smart ruler — dubbed the Mighty and Napoleon, respectively — will likely serve as free marketing for the company’s tablet applications. Adobe has a long history of producing desktop applications; now that the world is shifting towards tablets and smartphones as the main computers in many people’s lives, Adobe needs to show that it can survive the shift to touch-screens as well. Developing hardware that only works (or, at least, works best) when paired with an Adobe-made app is a fine way to realize that goal.
We reported yesterday on Rishad Tobaccowala’s claim that “Commerce has become marketing and marketing has become commerce,” which is best summarized as turning every sale into a potential advertisement for a company’s product — “closing the loop,” as my colleague Erin Griffith put it.
Microsoft, Google, Square, Adobe, and probably countless others are taking that a step further and developing entire products that exist largely so their software can attract more attention. Hardware is, at least for these companies, a way to ensure that software continues to consume the world, of showing consumers, manufacturers, and businesses what software is capable of when it’s housed in complementary hardware.
[Image courtesy Stratageme.com]
View, present and interact with meetings all from your mobile device
Adobe is making a few useful updates to its Adobe Connect apps today that will improve the experience for those joining meetings from mobile devices. First up, users on phones and tablets can now both deploy and join webinars and meetings being conducted in the Adobe Presenter format, with additional features therein. Presentations can now be interactive for people viewing on a mobile device, letting them tap on questions and answers to give their input. Video conferencing has also been improved to let the users view both their own video feed as well as the person talking, on top of viewing paused feeds of everyone else in the meeting.
Small improvements to the experience such as presentation backgrounds and new graphics are also small but useful changes that make Adobe Connect users on mobile feel like they're getting a complete experience. While you may not be using Adobe Connect Mobile on a daily basis, those in the education and enterprise markets will want to give this a look.
This week on the show were discussing the death of Adobe Creative Suite, building a Raspberry Pi retro game console, and how you’re embarrassing yourself online. We’re also answering your questions about repurposing old Mac computers, the advantages of Dashlane over Lastpass, and how to beat the heat this summer.
Prototypes from the Adobe XD team. The pen can be used to draw and transfer images between devices. But the real innovation is the ruler, which adds guidelines on screen to make it easier to draw lines and shapes accurately.
Yesterday we learned
A digital stylus (much less a digital ruler!) isn’t the most intuitive project for Adobe right now. While plenty of people use styli, many tablet screens still aren't sensitive enough to make “drawing” feel like drawing. But Adobe seems willing to bet that the screen technology will improve soon enough—and in the meantime, they’re throwing some cash at developing the tools that could make it useful.
About a year ago, Adobe tapped Ammunition, the San Francisco industrial design studio responsible for Nook and Beats by Dr. Dre, to develop a hardware toolkit that would improve how we use tablets during the design process. “Adobe really felt that the iPad had the potential to become a creative tool, but that it just wasn’t there yet,” Ammunition founder Robert Brunner told me over the phone yesterday. “We see them as the first step towards a tool-based suite.”
As a drawing tool, Mighty makes a big jump by tethering your identity and settings to the pen. It sounds simple, but Adobe’s new Creative Cloud is intended to let you move between devices with ease, which means that preserving your styles and preferences could be a problem. Mighty stores all of that information—line weight, style, and a host of others—so that when you change devices, your "hand" stays the same. Adobe has designed a clever-looking UI that takes full advantage of your fingers to erase and undo, and Ammunition's product design, with its triangular section and LED indicator light, is very elegant.
Napoleon—so named for its diminutive stature—is harder to explain. The thin device sits in your left (or right, depending) hand as you draw with Mighty, letting you select particular lines with your fingers. So if you want to draw an arc of a certain size, you tap the arc prompt, and Napoleon guides your hand towards precision. You could argue something like this is unnecessary for casual “ideation” (which, ugh), but for architects and designers it could be the key to integrating tablet sketches into a productive workflow. It's a bit like a drop-down Adobe toolbar made physical, but comparing it to a ruler makes it easier to relate to. “In a touch-based world, you can make a tool that looks like anything," says Brunner. "But why not make it look like something we’ve been familiar with for a long, long time?”
So what should we make of both pieces of hardware? First of all, they’re not destined for stores anytime soon. So to a certain extent, these are think pieces, aimed at exploring how Creative Cloud will function as a toolkit in the real world. And we can expect to see more of them in the coming months, since according to Brunner, several other similar projects are in the works.
“These devices could become your gateway into the cloud,” Brunner explains. “This could be the way you bring your content with you.” In other words, Mighty and Napoleon give us a peek at how smart hardware will eventually augment Adobe's virtual software. We usually talk about the Internet of Things in terms of the city or the home—but it’s about to start changing the creative process, too.
Adobe Photoshop, along with all other Creative Suite applications, just made a move to the cloud. Adobe decided to discontinue software you can actually buy so they can force you to rent the applications for a monthly fee. This change comes with a number of problems but also some advantages. Here's what the change means to you.
Today, Adobe announced the latest round of updates
Adobe's ability to strike just the right balance between being hugely expensive and easily crackable traditionally made it easy prey for software theft. I can remember my early days of scouring Warez chatrooms on AOL, downloading Photoshop 4 and being utterly pleased with myself. Since then, there's been a low barrier to entry for for any creative adventurer looking to procure Adobe products free of charge, despite the company's attempts at instituting increasingly convoluted activation methods.
Then, last year, came Creative Cloud. At first, Creative Cloud was just a subscription service and some peripheral online perks. But this year, a host of features are being tied into the service that actually promises to make the Adobe workflow significantly more user-friendly and efficient. Not only can you store your files in the cloud and access them anywhere, but you can also store your app settings online and sync to multiple devices, publish work on the Behance network, and utilize a robust set of sharing features built into the service. And you can be sure that future Adobe updates will only expand on these connected offerings.
What this means is that the dreamy promises of the Creative Cloud are going to make the choice between pirating or buying that much harder, to the point where the odds might finally swing in Adobe's favor. This should essentially be every software-maker's goal: Make the prospect of purchase more attractive than the prospect of piracy.
But what about password-sharing? Surely this will occur in some form—whose HBO Go account are you using?—but Adobe hasn't been shy in instituting clear limitations on Creative Cloud services. You are limited to 2 machines only, and if you want to run an app on a new rig, you must deactivate one of the others first. Of course, there will be attempted cracks, loopholes, and other ways people will try to game the system. And there will be plenty of users perfectly content with a simple cracked download of Photoshop or Illustrator without the bells and whistles of Creative Cloud.
But that doesn't matter. If Adobe can cut out even a fraction of software pirates by converting them to customers, it'll more than justify the move to the cloud.