Wait, When Did Software Become So Boring?

Maybe I’m just jaded and cranky. But as I wandered through Startup Alley at TC Disrupt this week, and even as I watched many of the Battlefield contestants, I found myself fighting eye-glazing ennui. Apps and services that help you connect and collaborate with others. Tools that help you build or use apps and services that help you connect and collaborate with others. Sigh. Been there. Done that.

Oh, sure, connection and collaboration are great, but this is beginning to feel like territory tramped down by ten thousand prospectors already. Maybe there’s still some gold in these here hills, but it feels like there’s precious little exploration left to do. Granted, I did like the Disrupt Cup winner, Layer. Well, sort of:

And I was impressed by a couple of the hackathon projects:

(Note, however, that I forgot to include the word “software” there.)

But to my mind, the consumer-software gold rush that began five years ago, when Apple unveiled the iPhone 3G and its App Store, hit the point of diminishing returns some time ago. It’s time to look for new forbidding mountains. Which mostly means it’s time to look at hardware.

That’s how it always works. Hardware engineers are the explorers, opening up new territory like ubiquitous broadband and/or smartphones and/or cloud-scale data centers, and software engineers are the prospectors who flood into these new lands and stake and mine their claims. Individuals move faster than organizations, which may explain why enterprise software has gone from boring to thrilling over the last couple of years, just as the consumer wave crested and waned:

But if you want to see what happens next, look at the hardware. (Stipulating that a line between “hardware” and “software” is at best a crude approximation as basically all hardware projects involve a lot of custom software, too.)

Everything that excited me at Disrupt was hardware: Estimote and its evil sibling PayPal Beacon; the new Micro Drone; Fabulonia, which offers secure DRM-free 3D printing via a printer-top box; Soil IQ: and of course Cota by Ossia, albeit with friends‘ caveats:

I suppose my fundamental complaint is that, in stark contrast to these hardware companies, almost all of the software companies exhibiting at Disrupt seemed to me to be built for today, or even yesterday, rather than tomorrow.

We’re heading into a future of drones and sensors. That is not a particularly insightful comment; it’s seemed painfully obvious to many people for some time now. Cota was pitched as a phone recharger, but I bet it’ll wind up being more useful for recharging wireless sensors, which — prediction alert! — I suspect will outnumber phones within the next decade. Drones of all sizes are already practically everywhere.

So where is the software being built for that future? Why still so much connection, collaboration and even, God help us, photo-sharing? True, there was a panel on Bitcoin, which is genuinely innovative and disruptive software;

yes, there’s Airware; but right now those feel like exceptions proving the rule.

Okay, so we have to wait for the hardware folks to start opening up the new territory. But in the interim it feels like not much is happening. My own degree is actually in hardware (electrical engineering), but I abandoned it almost immediately upon acquisition in order to become a software prospector. For the first time ever I find myself faintly regretting that. Maybe I am just jaded and cranky; or maybe software has now eaten enough of the world that the process is becoming less disruptive, less interesting, and more tedious status quo. I hope not. Bring on the drones and sensors.

Image credit: Yawn, Phoebe, Flickr.