Is hardware customization obsolete?

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 by Max Baron

It used to be that you could install plug-in boards and peripherals for your computer such as can still be done today at the box level in component stereo and video systems. In today’s computers, that option however seems to be rapidly disappearing. During the next few years, with desktops falling out of grace, these aftermarket components will see reduced sales as the easy to customize desktops are replaced by fully integrated systems that are difficult to change or upgrade internally or externally.

The trend may impact on design houses connected directly or indirectly to desktop systems whether by hardware or software products. Computer customization by owner options have been decreasing all along but due to the slow process one may not have fully realized the implications. During the recent months however, it has become impossible to avoid noticing the events that are reflecting on the technology and business of desktop computers: Hewlett Packard announced its intention to sell its PC business; Fry’s Electronics, a major computer and electronics store in our area has cut a few daily advertisements in the local newspaper plus most stores are reducing the number of desktops displayed to make space for increasing offerings of smart phones, tablets and notebooks. And, more indicative than anything else, we see tablets and smart phones used by people who have never before used desktops or laptops.

The plunging prices of computers have already taken a bite out of aftermarket internal components like add-on boards and memory as desktop manufacturers began to integrate more functions in the motherboard to maintain company revenues. Customization received a further setback with the quickly rising adoption of mobile devices that are nearly impossible to upgrade. You can’t add internal memory, change graphics boards, or add a multimedia board or peripherals. Mobile devices are too small in size. They require all internal components to be tightly packed plus for proprietary reasons some manufacturers will not allow the addition of external flash memory and USB devices. Also, any customization even if it were allowed might increase battery consumption and reduce the time between charges.

Computer software has followed hardware. System software that’s dependent on aftermarket components will share their fate. Applications software is suffering from limitations placed by battery lifecycles on internal memory, processor performance and the reduced number of processor cycles imposed by low energy consumption.

But, we may be looking at a more significant cause for the trend than the adoption of mobile devices: the separation of professional applications from entertainment and communication. MS Excel spreadsheets, complex MS Word documents, database management, MS PowerPoint, simulators, calculators etc., can continue to be delivered on powerful desktops whose volume sales are defined by corporate use — sales that will pale in comparison with the combined volume sales expected for consumer-targeted mobile computing appliances. These appliances are already providing news, information, email, access to internet communities, opinions, video and audio, games, internet-enabled purchases of goods, etc., all delivered on simple and easy to use systems.

The general purpose computer is experiencing defeat: consumers that want just the entertainment and communication no longer need to buy bulky complex desktops or laptops or for fear of complexity, avoid buying them. They can buy an appliance that does exactly what they want.

Most of today’s mobile computing devices can be upgraded only by software that can provide additional functions, faster processing or more secure communications—but as perceived at present these computing appliances will otherwise remain unchanged. Like several consumer digital cameras that one may own and use for different purposes, one may have to buy different mobile devices from several manufacturers and/or keep up with new generations coming from the same manufacturer. But mobile device prices are forbidding such luxury and the opportunity of aftermarket customization needs to be explored.

Assuming that the world will again be separated into closed systems and open systems, the latter to gain more traction, it is interesting to envision how these systems might be customized to fit individual preferences. If old computers could be customized via boards plugged into system buses and external peripherals connected to high speed I/O, in mobile devices we might see the emergence of new and old functions packaged for example in thin 1 in² – 2 in² modules that could be introduced / swapped via a removable panel. Different modules could offer features such as higher security, additional codecs, ROM-ed applications, better graphics, higher quality still and video photography, USB and Ethernet support and wireless battery charging.

Do you see open mobile systems triumphing once more over their closed versions and if so, what would be the most important functions to support and how would they be best packaged?

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3 Responses to “Is hardware customization obsolete?”

  1. S.A. @ LI says:

    The availability of robust external interfaces, particularly USB but also including Firewire, eSATA and so on, has been one factor in this move away from internally-bussed hardware devices. Also, there are now higher levels of integration of devices on the motherboard – for example, a one-chip solution that integrates 802.11 a/b/g/n and Bluetooth is easily integrated. Depending on the application, the wireless capabilities of the device may be all you need to connect to peripherals.

    In those examples, the driver architecture is often greatly simplified. For example, if you have a low-speed I/O device, it may be possible to simply use the USB HID interface and avoid needing a device-specific driver altogether.

    But for high bandwidth or low-latency I/O, plugging into a board-level bus (like one of the PCI flavors) seems like it won’t be going away any time soon?

  2. L.R. @ LI says:

    Robert, you pose a question relating to several trends in the industry, and it is not clear if you need each trend to be individually addressed, or perhaps you are trying to hint that these trends are inter-related?
    With regards to the fist observation, with respect to the addition of application-specific peripherals, I completely agree with S. – the trend is still here except that the additions are happening outside of the box, instead of inside. Looking to the future, I think that while USB should satisfy most consumer requirements,external PCIe (including the Thunderbolt variant) is fully capable of accommodating high-end professional peripherals of any conceivable function, including custom-built (e.g. on an FPGA) hardware blocks.
    Explaining the reasons for this trend may actually touch on the other trend you mention – the underlying trend is to improve the user experience and reduce the total cost of ownership.
    With respect to the extension of system capabilities – in-box customization is prone to mistakes like overloading of the power supply or the overwhelming of the ventilation system, which are very difficult to diagnose in a telephone support call, and thus moving towards outside of the box addition greatly reduces the chance of system failure as a result of such additions (e.g. USB tight power consumption rules and over-current protections), and reduces the difficulty of troubleshooting (and hence reducing TCO).
    The trend of consumers moving away from the traditional desktop form factor IMO can be traced to the same motivation – why buy a cow for just a glass of milk ?
    Digging even deeper it seems all these trends are rooted in the mass-market adoption of computing devices and is feeding from it. Due to the vastness of the mass-market volume it has become practicable to build devices in a variety of form factors and configurations to fit that particular market segment, instead of selling a base system plus a repertoire of add-on components, essentially as a kit.
    Going back a century, to when the radio receiver was gaining acceptance, during the first wave DIY kits were sold to hobbyists, as they were few, but when market adoption has ramped up and demand increased, the manufacturer had to address a much less competent consumer with a more cost-effective product, at a vastly bigger volume.
    So this may be all the result of the scaling economies.

  3. OAZ @ TI says:

    The PC succeeded because it was an open architecture. And I believe in the mobile world this will continue to be true. Not in terms of adding new HW to a device rather than inter-connecting devices using wireless technologies e.g. like M2M or utilizing the cloud. Customization will happen via SW – and the SW needs to be open …..

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