A few weeks ago I have seen a talk given by Bob Colwell, one of the brains behind Intel's Pentium Pro whose architecture has evolved into the CPUs that power Macs today). The gist is that the exponential growth of the number of transistors — Moore's Law — will taper off and we will enter a new age of computing where innovation can no longer be fueled by ever increasing processing power. At the same time, the startup Upthere made its presence publicly known. Backed by industry veterans such as Bertrand Serlet, Chris Bourdon and Alex Kushnir, it has received sizable funding from venture capitalists. Their goal is to usher in a new era of cloud computing where all of your data is in the cloud, and storage on the device is at best a cache. Upthere's admittedly very ambitious goal is to offer an end-to-end solution from server hardware to end user software.
These two seemingly disparate threads led me to the question What will software look like in the future?
In the past hardware advances have outpaced software advances, and while there were a few pieces of software (such as OS X initially) which required more performance than hardware could deliver at the time, nowadays new platforms such as watchOS and tvOS are designed specifically to work well with the hardware available at the time. What is more, the processing speed of the current breed of iOS devices is toe-to-toe with Apple's notebook offerings.
Once there are no more easy gains to be had through advances in chip manufacturing technology, you either have to improve the architecture of the chips or improve the software. From that point on, performance gains will be much harder to come by, and advancements from better software will become increasingly important. What kind of trends will likely play a more prominent role as exponential growth of chip complexity tapers out?
Specialized hardware integrated with software
While specialized hardware has been around literally since the beginning of computing, the cost-benefit analysis was usually skewed towards general purpose hardware. It was simply easier and cheaper to wait for one or two iterations of general purpose hardware rather than design specialized hardware (which is manufactured at a smaller scale) and wait for software to take advantage of it.
Ever since the advent of the smartphone, specialized hardware for things like image processing and encryption has gained more importance, albeit for the sake of power efficiency. But also in other areas such as storage can one find specialized SoCs from Intel, Annapurna Labs and others that are optimized for specific tasks. Once CPU and GPU performance levels out, the prospect of dedicating specialized hardware to certain tasks becomes more and more appealing. (This is another reason why I think Intel will be in big trouble in the consumer space: they are not able to offer the same level of diversity the ARM ecosystem offers.)
Software, of course, needs to take advantage of custom hardware, so companies which make their own hard- and software are at an advantage. Here, one should not just think of Apple, but also of Amazon, Backblaze, Facebook, Google and Oracle who are all designing their own custom hardware to run their software.
Cross-device and cloud-based computing
Speaking of the datacenter, many future pieces of software will integrate the cloud in a smart way. By this I do not refer to cloud document storage, but cloud-based processing of your data. One simple example is cloud-based indexing of your files: Google's Photos service not only processes the image file's metadata, but uses sophisticated image recognition algorithms to analyze what is actually in the photo. Even if the algorithms could run on your Mac, iPhone or iPad, the algorithms would have to be optimized to work within the limited power, performance and memory limits that are imposed upon the system by the hardware.
Software running on dedicated and specialized server hardware would not be subject to such limitations, and instead, it could be designed to only do, say, image processing very, very well. Software engineers could implement the much more advanced algorithms to take on the heavy load of certain computing jobs. “The application” is designed from the start to be split up into several parts that run across several devices in concert. The Apple Watch can be seen through this lens: The Watch has limited compute power and no dedicated LTE connection, it has to outsource those tasks to an iPhone. And while the Watch's reliance on an iPhone is a drawback, without it the Apple Watch would not have been a viable product with current technology.
While in some cases this is done out of necessity, there are cases when a cloud element actually improves efficiency. Podcast clients such as Overcast and many RSS readers do not let the device part of the app crawl RSS feeds individually, but instead have dedicated servers do the job for them. Tens and hundreds of thousands of requests for each individual instance of the app are replaced by one, and the devices talk to one central server instead.
Such integration across several devices is not just limited to what one may call “consumption of content” (a term that is often used disparagingly), but also features in services like Adobe CC. Once you subscribe, you have access to their whole app portfolio and the community components such as Bēhance. The apps are designed to work with one another, you can start a drawing in Sketch and continue it on Illustrator. After you are done, you can put it into your digital portfolio or solicit feedback from others.
A focus on software quality and stability
The rapid release cycle of hardware forced the software divisions of Apple and Google as well as software vendors to keep pace. While the criticism of some commentators who lamented the state of Apple's recent software was overblown, software that runs on “computers” is very different from software that runs the various controllers and gadgets in a car or an airplane. People expect their car to work, and would not want to accept if their “radio app crashed”.
Longer release cycles, more modern programming languages and better software frameworks could pave the way for software quality and stability being a higher priority. The effects would initially be subtle, but add up over time: Every crash or bug gnaws at the bond of trust between user and device, so less crashes mean people can place more trust into their device. And for certain tasks, you have to aim higher — if Apple and Google really do end up building the rumored cars for consumers, self-driving or not, they better raise the bar for software quality and stability.
Moreover, many of the hard problems are UI and UX problems: How are certain ideas and paradigms implemented, and how are new features exposed to the user without overwhelming him or her in the process? Also here longer development cycles could allow for more thought to go into the design as well as give software engineer time to tackle hard problems (such as getting the replacement for mDNSresponder right or implementing a new filesystem) which cannot be implemented within the 6-8 month window they currently have.
Slower progress: the new normal
The breakneck speed of the computing industry is an outlier, other industries are moving at a much slower pace. A 5-year-old car is not only acceptable, it is in all likelihood still comparable to its younger 2015 sibling. The horsepower has not doubled or quadrupled, fuel economy is not through the roof, and all the controls are essentially still the same. You would have to go back further in time to have a markedly different experience. Compare a 2010 iPad to a 2014 iPad Air 2 or a 2015 iPad Pro: the difference is night and day.
While it is understandable that some would bemoan the end of rapid performance and battery life improvements — and all the benefits that come with them, that does not mean that our experience has to evolve that much more slowly. Instead other trends such as abundant availability of networking, the ability to cheaply put full-fledged computers into more and more every-day objects will continue to fundamentally change the world. (A new Raspberry Pi Zero costs just $5, and that includes a copy of the MagPi magazine.) I am optimistic that software engineers will rise to the challenge.