Perspective: Computer-challenged elves need not apply

Perspective: Computer-challenged elves need not apply

Richard Schmalensee

Hammers and nails are gathering dust in the elves’ workshop this season.

That’s because two hot gifts – PlayStation 3 and Tickle Me Extreme Elmo – are almost entirely dependent on software inside. These new toys are just the latest evidence that software platforms have become one of the most important economic and technological developments of the early 21st century. They are the invisible engines behind not just toys, but the businesses of the future.

Sony introduced its PlayStation 3 last month to long lines and megabids on eBay. There’s no telling how many annoying habits a teenage boy might give up if you snag one of these dream machines for the holiday season. Then there’s TMX Elmo. He slaps his knee, falls to the floor, rolls over and pounds his arm during his laughing jag. Red and fuzzy, the latest Elmo has been flying off the toy shelves after its ridiculously early holiday introduction in September.

The software in these toys is the real revolution. Their intelligence comes from a software platform that humans write in geeky languages like C++ or Java. String enough statements like “IF i < n THEN” together cleverly and Elmo will go nuts.