Hardware Comes Last

Google's Chromebook Pixel is aspirational in nearly every way. It's designed within an inch of its life, a physical specimen worthy of Rodin. Its lines are sharp, its display is crisp. And nearly every review has had the same takeaway: It's amazing. Don't buy it.

It's enough to give you whiplash, or at least a decent migraine. But however absurd and contradictory a sentiment it seems, it's actually spot on. The Chromebook Pixel is gorgeous, expensive, and worthless as anything other than the physical embodiment of an ineluctable truth: hardware isn't just secondary now, it's an afterthought. At best.

The Pixel's problem, of course, is that it runs Chrome OS, a cloud-based platform that supports, outside of Google's offerings, none of the applications you need. That, and it's effectively useless unless you're connected to the internet. In that sense, spending $1300 on a Pixel is like hiring a mannequin from an escort service: it might look nice, but it's not functional in any of the ways you'd expect.

The Pixel is far from the first product to suffer this affliction. The BlackBerry Z10 was widely admired for its hardware, but you'd be crazy to actually buy the thing. If the Lumia 920 were an Android phone, Nokia might actually sell some of them. Being totally wonderful and mostly useless has somehow become an acceptable state of being.

Software has always driven adoption; that's nothing new. But hardware used to at least ride shotgun. There's a reason Jony Ive is ascendent and Scott Forstall is looking for a job. Not too long ago, how something looked mattered nearly as much as—and sometimes more than—what that thing did.

Now, though? Sony spends two hours announcing its latest console without ever actually showing the console. That's partly because it's not done yet, and partly—in Sony's own words—because a console is "just a box." Which is true! But boxes used to matter.

What the PS4 and Z10 and Lumia 920 and (especially, resoundingly) a $1300 Chromebook all shout are that we don't buy gadgets anymore. We buy ecosystems, keys that unlock gardens whose walls are high and fiercely guarded. A display's pixel count is worthless if it doesn't show us what we want. Touchscreens have made buttons obsolete; apps take precedence over build. A three-year-old iPhone beats next year's BlackBerry.

That's not new, but it's truer than ever before. And it leaves innovation in the hands of a few entrenched platforms, most of whom are already set in their ways. Hardware breakthroughs are neutered if they come from the wrong company, back the wrong horse. Our laptops and phones and tablets become more and more commoditized until we're all staring at the same screen, pushing the same keys.

The Chromebook Pixel is amazing. Don't buy it. But by all means, wish that you could.