The transition from hardware to software has marked many industries over the years and gaming machines have long been discussed as being next in line. After all, the original promise of the networked floor was you wouldn’t have to change hardware every time you wanted to change your game mix and games could be customized on the fly. But that’s an eight- or nine-year-old conversation and progress toward the networked floor has been very slow. Until fairly recently.

Player user interface solutions such as Bally Technology’s iVIEW DM, our cover feature this month, and a number of other increasingly popular solutions have soared to the top of many slot manager wish lists, with 43 percent of them planning to purchase one in the coming year, according to the Roth Fantini slot survey earlier this year. The road to the networked floor is running through marketing, not operations. So what happened?

In large part, the economy is what happened. There was precious little incentive to invest in a rewired slot floor earlier in the decade when things were still very healthy. As a nice-to-have, networked floors didn’t really rate with the need-to-have of new game purchases, which is what operators saw driving revenue growth on the slot floor. And then the economic bomb went off.

At the same time, gaming was in the unfortunate position of adding previously committed-to supply, and elected officials rekindled their love affair with voluntary taxation. So more supply, in many markets lots more supply, came online while demand flat-lined. Marketing wars ensued that gain in intensity to this day and show no sign of relenting.

Gaming technology providers reacted, as they always do. And in this endeavor they were supported by the broader world of technology, with great leaps forward in the areas of personalization and mobility. Ultimately, progress was such that you no longer needed Ethernet-ready floors to run networked solutions. For a fraction of the cost of a new game, slot operators can deliver new content and real-time marketing to their players, refreshing their floors and their legacy games at the same time. This isn’t just the case with player user interfaces; wireless solutions are turning printers into customized marketing terminals, to take just one example. Web-based solutions like cloud computing will add more functionality and marketing power, not just via the game, but through mobile devices such as smartphones.

But while it tempting to drift off into the virtual ether and start writing obituaries for slot hardware, it’s worth remembering that gaming rarely fits into the “typical industry” stereotype. For a wide variety of reasons, some obvious (the need to pass new product through the regulatory process, jurisdiction by jurisdiction) and some mysterious (gambling, it turns out, may not be just another product), change often happens at a more measured pace in gaming. As this month’s World of Slots presentation again shows, industry creativity is running very high in the hardware category, and a glance at the Slot Manager Forum on the back page shows interest in new game cabinets running high as well.

Questions remain about a software-dominant model where the only form of variety runs through the touch screen. At the same time, there’s no denying the momentum of the systems-driven approach, which is having a growing impact on the game experience and giving operators new and efficient means to solidify relationships.

It all adds up to an extremely interesting time in the business, for all of its challenges. I look forward to seeing many of our readers at G2E 2011 next month, and to compare notes. Have a good one.