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Mashups and Product as Platform

In a recent NYTimes blog post, Michael Zimbalist, vice president for research and development operations at the Times, discusses the potential for hardware to follow what has happened in software, in allowing unpredictable ‘mashups’.  While Mr. Zimbalist references the classic manufacturer driven integration, the more interesting aspect is the advent of consumer driven combination, as he states:

“The coupling or uncoupling of powerful hardware components is gradually shifting from the manufacturers to the consumer.”

From an Excellence by Design view this raises a few points of thought:

First, this is no surprise for two very basic reasons.  From a more recent history (i.e. information age) point of view, this is nothing more than the inevitable evolution of software recombination, (new hardware mashups are enabled in large part by the new software integration capability of that hardware) and is similar to  successful industry of ‘build your own PC’.  There is simply both past experience and better capability to do hardware mashups.

Second, to use my favorite analogy, is this any differ than the car industry, which has for years enjoyed a popular industry of ‘hot rods, ‘customs’, and ‘pimp my ride’ type mashups?  Americans in particular are extremely fond of modifying the factory product, whether for looks, performance, or simple uniqueness.  And it is not exclusive to autos and Americans. Motorcycles are another popular target for endless modification by the consumer, and the interest is worldwide.  So when ‘information technology mashups’ sounds new, remember its just a new version of a long held love.

Third, (and more to the point of Excellence by Design), what can we expect from this new application of user/owner ingenuity? Let’s take some lessons from what we have seen from the past in autos and motorcycles that I’ll refer to as:

Excellence by Design Rules for enabling Hardware Mashups

  • Hardware can be designed to well enable mashups, or not.  Think of tires, batteries, windshield wipers for your car, or seats, handlebars, and shocks for your motorcycle.  Pretty easy to change and customize.  In the case of tires it is because there are well accepted standards for size, attachment, and performance of the replacements parts, and ease of change by the consumer.
  • These ‘mashup enabling’ properties can be manufacturer driven, or industry driven.  Some manufactures will actually go to great lengths to enable external (business or consumer) modification for their products.  You can argue that the Apple iPhone Apps platform is a great example for software (though Apple has historically been very closed to hardware modification) as Windows was for the PC.  Speaking of the PC, the IBM compatible PC market is one that has, almost by accident, become the classic case of extreme hardware mashup/modification.
  • There can be great variation in the performance of mashups, due to interface issues, quality of the replacement parts, and the willingness of the original manufacturer to facilitate such mashups.  Think of the IBM S/370.  It spawned the first real market for computer hardware mashups, as ‘plug compatible’ replacements proliferated.  But IBM was not exactly supportive and sometimes changes in microcode (the first example of software that facilitated hardware mashups!) could negatively affect the performance of using a third party hardware product.  (note this became such a hot issue it was the core of many lawsuits…something that has and likely will again occur as hardware technology mashups proliferate)
  • In the end, success is very much about design.  Good design can facilitate mashups, ensure/preserve interface compatibility and performance, and enable extensions in compatible ways.  Poor design can significantly reduce performance, lead to unstable operation, or worse.  Its true in cars, motorcycles, mainframes, PC…and the new crop of iPhones, Nexus Ones, USB devices, etc.
  • Custom is interesting,  Factory is almost always more reliable, Industry evolution is best. Just like the examples in other industries, there is real advantage to the planning, design, and inherent focus that the manufacturer puts on theire product.  Mashups that leverage this and do so in approved ways are much more likely to be stable, those that are custom fabricated and integrated poorly are just asking for trouble.  But the efforts do lead to evolution, and the ‘industry’ as a whole can often mature to better and better means to enable stable and valuable mashups.  Such has happened in the auto industry, which enjoys a healthy, safe, and valuable after market parts industry.  Very true also of Harley Davidson, who, thru a combination of corporate desire, and relentless demand from its customers, spawned a huge market for hardware adds that range from super simple bolt-ons, to complex and sophisticated changes.
  • Success is reliant on designing your Product as Platform. This Excellence by Design principle supports the idea of thinking holistically about your product not as a standalone offering, but as a base for future extensibility, whether by tight integration, loose integration, or unanticipated mashups.  It enables more flexible and reliable mashups, and better enables your community to help drive your product into new, innovative markets and uses.

Conclusions:

-‘Mashups’ are becoming more commonplace everyday, and done so by a wider variety of people (large companies, small companies, backyward mechanics, and even average consumers).

-Beware of the GREAT difference between mashups that are done well and with products designed for it, and those ‘backyard’ inventions whose wheels may fall of just miles down the road.

-Best case is to think of the mashup potential for your product, and intelligently embrace the potential through good design and market/customer enablement that supports and nurtures innovation.  This is strongly reflected in the Excellence by Design principle  Product as Platform.

In summary, Excellence in hardware mashups can be accomplished…by Design of your Product as Platform.  Hey, don’t just take my word for it…it has proven successful in other industries and will work well again for information technology.