Hard Innovation

08/12/2011 04:53 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

In an age defined by rapid prototyping, overnight design, and the two-day turnaround, it's hard to imagine that something as ubiquitous as personal computing could still be constrained by hardware. But if the evolution of the tablet market has proved anything, it is that physical hardware -- with the exception of iPhone cases and tablet stands -- has been all but abandoned in the gold rush for new widgets, apps, and software development. The irony is that the physical is what enabled personal computing in the first place. Just look at the homebrewed Apple-1. Like so, it will be the physical that will lead the way to the next era of user oriented technology.

If you live in Silicon Valley, this trend is already becoming apparent through a new tide of startups that rely on physical devices to complement their software. A great example is Getaround, a Bay Area startup aiming to centralize car sharing. Getaround uses a proprietary car-opening system that enables any individual to unlock and drive a car they've just rented by using their iPhone. Flaunting this new contraption, the company won the TechCrunch Disrupt NY startup competition in mid May.

However, the best example of hardware driving innovative enterprises appears in the case of a new payments startup called Square. Square's service couples a mobile payments application with a physical card reader that plugs into the audio jack of smartphone or tablet. Both the reader and the app are free, so anyone from teenagers to young companies can accept credit cards without having to set up Merchant Accounts or purchasing expensive card readers. Square's hardware introduces incredible new functionality to smartphones and tablets -- the ability to serve as mobile registers. In doing so, they've carved themselves a nice little niche out of the frighteningly centralized payments industry. Plus, they've acquired a 1 billion dollar valuation after in just 14 months of operation.

Strangely enough, the emergence of innovative new post-PC hardware has remained substantially peripheral when it comes to the functionality of these devices. Despite widespread predictions that smartphones and tablets will eventually displace personal computers, many essential features of standard computers are still non-existent when it comes to tablets and smartphones. What are these features? Options for multiple page viewing, temporary file storage, and most importantly, effective systems for typing and inputting information.

Recent attempts to create this functionality have been approached primarily from a software-heavy perspective. For some features, like temporary file storage, this makes sense. However in addition to new apps and computer programs, it will take physical devices to bridge the gap between computers and touch-screen devices. Look for new hardware to usher in the next generation of technological change.