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Jon Bruner: Where Will Software and Hardware Meet?

By Jon Bruner May 15, 2013

In this post from the O'Reilly Radar, Bruner wonders whether software, as it adds more value to machines, could completely commoditize them.

I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one recently when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.

Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.

In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. If you’re not driving, you don’t care much about how the car handles; you just want a comfortable seat, functional air conditioning, and Web connectivity for entertainment. A panel in the dashboard becomes the only substantive point of interaction between a car and its owner, and if every car is running Google’s software in that panel, then there’s not much left to distinguish different makes and models.

When’s the last time you heard much of a debate on Dell laptops versus HP? As long it’s running the software you want, and meets minimum criteria for performance and physical quality, there’s not much to distinguish laptop makers for the vast majority of users. The exception, perhaps, is Apple, which consumers do distinguish from other laptop makers for both its high-quality hardware and its unique software.

That’s how I start to think after a few days in Mountain View. A trip to Detroit pushes me in the other direction: the mechanical aspects of cars are enormously complex. Even incremental changes take vast re-engineering efforts. Changing the shape of a door sill to make a car easier to get into means changing a car’s aesthetics, its frame, the sheet metal that gets stamped to make it, the wires and sensors embedded in it, and the assembly process that puts it together. Everything from structural integrity to user experience needs to be carefully checked before a thousand replicates start driving out of Ford’s plants every day.

So, when it comes to value added, where will the balance between software and machines emerge? Software companies and industrial firms might both try to shift the balance by controlling the interfaces between software and machines: if OpenXC can demonstrate that it’s a better way to interact with Ford cars than any other interface, Ford will retain an advantage.

As physical things get networked and instrumented, software can make up a larger proportion of their value. I’m not sure exactly where that balance will arise, but I have a hard time believing in complete commoditization of the machines beneath the software.

See our free research report on the industrial internet for an overview of the ways that software and machines are coming together.

Jon Bruner is editor-at-large at O’Reilly MediaThis post is part of O’Reilly Radar, and its industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.