Apple’s New iPad and the End of Hardware Impressiveness

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Inevitably, some people were disappointed by Apple’s new iPad, which comes out this Friday.

Aside from the Retina display, the new iPad consists of minor updates, the Associated Press wrote. CNet’s David Carnoy wrote a list of things we didn’t get (as if Apple CEO Tim Cook is Santa Claus). Even if every “iPad 3” rumor and bit of speculation came true, I’m sure some pundits wouldn’t have been happy. As Marco Arment pointed out, people were disappointed with the drastically thinner, lighter and faster iPad 2 as well.

(MORE: Apple’s New iPad Should Be Google’s Wake-Up Call)

My colleague Harry McCracken already made the point that Apple events tend to be underwhelming to the tech press. What the new iPad also made me realize is that we’ve reached a turning point in the life of smartphones and tablets: Hardware improvements just aren’t that impressive anymore.

To be clear, I’m not saying hardware won’t continue to improve. There will always be more processor cores, more memory, better cameras and crisper displays. We’ve just passed the point where these improvements seem like technological breakthroughs. Most of the good stuff has already happened.

Here’s a short list of examples:

  • We marveled when device makers surpassed 1 GHz clock speeds in mobile processors, and then tacked on extra processing cores for complex tasks.
  • Our smartphone cameras became good enough to take Facebook-worthy photos, and now they sport advanced effects such as image stabilization, face detection and auto-focus. Then, phone makers tacked on front-facing cameras for anyone who’s into video chat.
  • Smartphone and tablet displays now have more pixels than the eye can see.
  • With 4G LTE, the speed of mobile data now rivals that of our home Internet connections.
  • We’ve seen phones in every possible shape and size, from the credit card-sized HP Veer to the almost-tablet Samsung Galaxy Note. If you’re into modular devices, hardware makers are experimenting with that too. (Although, to be fair, we haven’t seen many gigantic tablets yet.)

Maybe I just lack imagination, but what mind-blowing hardware innovation is there to look forward to in the fourth-generation iPad, or whatever Android tablet Apple’s rivals are cooking up next? A couple years ago, we could wish for cameras that had flash bulbs and didn’t stink, processors that didn’t lag, RAM that didn’t run short, or data downloads that didn’t take forever. In today’s devices, those wishes have come true. At best, near-field communications and multi-day battery life are the last remaining great hardware frontiers.

Put another way, phones and tablets have become like desktops and laptops. We’ll expect new specs every year, and maybe an occasional gimmicky feature like 3D, but we will no longer be blown away by them. (Maybe that’s the reasoning behind Apple’s “new iPad” nomenclature, free of numerals. We’re now in a stage of mild evolution where product numbers don’t matter as much.)

That’s not such bad news — at least for Apple. With the most crucial hardware advancements out of the way, the tech industry can pay better attention to software. It’s telling that one of the big let-downs in Apple’s new iPad is the lack of Siri, a software feature. It’s also telling that Apple spent under 20 minutes of its iPad press conference talking about hardware, but more than a half hour talking about apps and software. Like I wrote last week, I hope Google got the message.

Eventually, there will be another paradigm shift. Maybe it’ll come in the form of flexible displays or wearable augmented reality gear. Perhaps human-powered gadgets will eliminate battery issues, or new standards in wireless communication will let all our devices communicate instantly, without input lag. But for the foreseeable future, the toughest hardware work is done.

MORE: Apple Announces New iPad with ‘Retina’ Display, Same Old Name