Most Tech Companies Are Better at Software Than Hardware

TOPSHOT - A woman tries on Google's virtual reality device "Daydream View" after the opening of Google's pop-up store in New York on October 20, 2016. Google opened its first retail store, which is a pop-up store, intended to showcase the range of new "Made by Google" products. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewel Samad — AFP/Getty Images

An especially amusing inside-baseball moment for journalists is when competing bigfoot publications come out with lengthy articles—we call them thumbsuckers—on the same subject. Witness the near-simultaneous posting of significant works Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that come to the same conclusion: Tech companies are hopeless at hardware.

Both articles are exceedingly well done, and I recommend them highly. The WSJ’s Jack Nicas writes expansively in a deeply reported piece, “Silicon Valley Stumbles in World Beyond Software,” that focuses largely on the hardware foibles of Google. As we all know, Google (GOOG) is a software company, and its exertions on drones, phones, robotic cars and the like so far have largely come to naught. Nicas concludes that this is because physics is so different from computer engineering. What works in software is far messier in the real world.

Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist at the NY Times, elegantly takes the argument a step further, writing that gadgets themselves are things of the past. “Thanks to GoPro we realized that people really wanted to take videos of themselves doing underwater handstands,” he quips. But once the novelty wears off—and no-name manufacturers knock off GoPro’s (GPRO) innovation—there’s no profit margin left over.

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I read these articles with a bit of bemusement. My first cover story in Fortune—in November 2003—was called “Shootout in Gadget Land,” an article about how the likes of Dell, Virgin, Gateway and others were moving into consumer electronics. It included a section on the “rise of no-names,” featuring a DVD maker named Apex Digital that was eating the lunch of more established brands, like Sony. Nearly every manufacturer I highlighted in that article is out of the consumer-electronics game today. One company that dominates it, Apple (AAPL), whose only gadget entry at the time was the iPod, got the briefest of mentions.

My conclusion: Yes, tech companies are better at software than hardware. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying to make it or that new hardware categories won’t emerge to delight consumers. There’s still just too much money to be made.

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