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At the dawn of the mainframe era, Thomas Watson is said to have remarked that perhaps only five such systems would ever be sold in the world and that perhaps, just one machine would be needed to solve the most intractable problems.

Whether or not this was uttered is up for debate, but for the sake of historical context, it reminds us of the evolution of hardware value for companies producing a new architecture that promises unique capability. For IBM, the services side of the business was where the investments paid off over time, but of course none of that could have developed without forward-thinking investments in physical systems. Even those they thought very few would buy.

The other lesson is that markets value unique capability. With the margins shaved to smithereens off classical computing devices and not much variation in terms of what system makers can offer, it is possible we are resting at the same inflection point T.J. Watson was at when he speculated about the limited market for unique hardware capability in 1943.

With cloud now, new innovations in hardware can filter into mainstream market faster than ever before, broadening both access and competition, especially if those systems can provide an indisputable edge for one or more application areas.

There are plenty of new architectures emerging today, especially those targeting machine learning, but those are spin-offs of the standard base of applications, processing technologies, and software ecosystems. The hardware is simple to procure and build from. For an emerging area like quantum computing, however, the situation is quite different.

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Category: Science