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Why we don’t see hardware at developer conferences anymore

Apple’s WWDC, Google I/O, Microsoft’s Build conferences all revolve around developers, but consumers watch closely on live blogs, live streams, and through blogs post across the web. While new software is impressive, consumers are more interested in new hardware whether it’s a new Nexus device, MacBook Pro, or more powerful Xbox One. It traditionally works by announcing new hardware alongside with new ways to build and develop apps or software for those more powerful devices. This was the case of Apple; the company announced the iPhone first, then the company introduced the App store for developers to build and sell apps.

This introduction of hardware at these developers conferences was meant to get developers to create support for their apps whether it be with the iPhone, Nexus Q, or Amazon Alexa. Google I/O featured hardware but didn’t give developers access to that device or even let them get a chance to play around with it. Then at WWDC 2016, we didn’t see a new MacBook or iPhone 6 and many consumers and even tech journalist were gripping about how we didn’t see any new hardware.  The trend of no hardware at developer conferences is new, only the past year or two has Apple, Google, and other large hardware makers spun the gadget announcements into their event. Those announcements come closer back to school time, before holidays, to boost awareness and hopefully increase sales into the holiday push,

As more of our hardware becomes iterative building apps or software isn’t tied to hardware, but instead developers can build and not worry about if the hardware will be able to handle their app. There are cases though new hardware features need hardware support. The iPhone 6S introduced 3D Touch, which lets phones have multiple ways to use your phone’s touchscreen. The initial launch of the feature and iPhone happened during September, long after WWDC. This meant developers weren’t all gathered together and ready to start building apps that used 3D Touch. While there were some key developers building support into their apps, there wasn’t a mass support for the feature. Apple once again emphasized 3D Touch at WWDC and put it front and center during the iOS part of the keynote. This push during the developer conference means we’ll likely see dozens of new apps adding support for 3D Touch in the coming months. Making the hardware-related feature more powerful but also more relevant for consumers. If Apple would have introduced the iPhone 6S during WWDC, they could have doubled down on 3D Touch and made the feature a core part of the phones marketing because there were so many apps that support the feature.

The lack of a new MacBook could signal one of two things, the updates to the hardware aren’t going to affect software or boost performance substantially or it means Apple could introduce something like Touch ID with the Mac but just decide to push the developer support more slowly. This way of selling new APIs or hardware related features don’t work, but it does help the bottom line of these companies. A hardware announcement in the summer with a fall release doesn’t increase holiday sales, but an announcement in the fall with the release a week later keeps everyone talking about it into the holiday shopping season.  

Overall, though, software and apps aren’t taking more resources or needing more advanced hardware to run smoothly. A lot of the optimization is coming in the form of software improvements. Android N, for example, switched how they execute the backend of the phone, increasing battery life and cutting down on the CPU. A phone these days are powerful, and a new processor will increase speeds and run games more smoothly, but the difference from the previous phone is marginal. This may change in the coming years again, though. The rise of virtual reality means we need more powerful hardware to run graphics intensive games, apps, and videos at 60FPS on a device that fits in our palms. This shift to VR means apps and games need more hardware power to run smoothly, and we could see a phone or two slip into a developer conference to highlight how to build a high-quality, powerful phone and balance the battery life.

Either way, most apps don’t need to use all the resources from a phone. Consumers are focused on messaging, sending photos, and buying things on Amazon. If hardware keeps getting faster and more powerful by margins each year, we won’t see phones at the developer conference, but if more gadgets like the Nexus Q are built, we could see them show up once in awhile.

Tell us in the comments below what you think about us not seeing hardware announcements at the developer conferences, but instead at their events.