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March 24, 2014
The Business of Applications—Applied to Hardware Published: Mar-24-14
By: Krista Schnell

Powerful. Quick. Flexible. Agile. No, we are not describing Adrian Peterson. We’re describing the new age of the enterprise, where Big is the Next Big Thing. Accenture’s 2014 Technology Vision claims that large companies are going digital in big ways—giving themselves the agility they need to quickly adapt in this rapidly changing world, while simultaneously leveraging their size, scale, and talent to fuel the next big wave, rather than ride it. Instead of reacting to technology changes brought on by startups or tech giants like Facebook and Google, our big clients are now moving from being digitally disrupted to becoming the digital disrupters themselves.

Large corporations understand that they need to be as agile as their customers. But that’s not an easy feat. Business leaders are now pushing for software that is far nimbler than the legacy systems they’ve relied on for decades—in many ways, they’re pushing for what their customers have been using for several years and have come to expect: user-friendly, simple, modular apps. As software becomes a core competency of the digital business, business and technology functions now need to work together to build these low-cost, accessible, and intelligent apps. Gartner predicts that by 2017, a quarter of all business enterprises will have an app store managing corporate-sanctioned apps on PCs and mobile devices. There’s a wave coming. It’s the Business of Applications.

And this wave might be larger and broader than we think. There’s reason to believe that the core concepts behind the Business of Applications might go beyond software and extend to hardware. But what could that possibly mean? Well, it means that hardware is becoming more modular and agile, too. It’s becoming more low-cost and accessible. In the age of the digital business, this seems to make sense. As software performs better than ever before, the demands of hardware simultaneously rise—in a similar fashion to accomplish a similar goal.

One example of this increased modularity in software comes from Google’s (Motorola’s) Project Ara. The idea is to create a smartphone that costs $50, and from there, you can customize that smartphone by interchanging or adding on components—such as sensors, speakers, and storage. Central to this project is the open platform design, which means that those components could be sourced from third-party hardware developers, enabling new entrants to compete in the smartphone hardware industry. In essence, Google wants to “do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines” (from The Official Motorola Blog).

And hyperscale data centers are becoming more modular, too—with Facebook’s Open Compute Project (OCP) technology leading the way. In 2011, Facebook started this project with the goal of “building one of the most efficient computing infrastructures at the lowest cost possible.” By leveraging the power of the community (from Workforce to Crowdsource), Facebook could compete with the likes of Google and Amazon, who had already built impressive (but proprietary) hyperscale systems. And it seems to have worked out quite well. Facebook claims that it can build its data centers at one-fifth the cost of a traditional data center and that they have saved $1.2 billion by using Open Compute-based equipment rather than proprietary products. And this last fact hints at one of the key goals of OCP—rather than relying on server designs from OEMs like Dell and HP, Open-Compute based equipment can be used in the modular data center. By breaking up components of the data center, rack, and server, companies who use OCP designs now have the increased flexibility to do smaller upgrades based on specific needs with cheaper hardware. They no longer need to wait for a massive upgrade from a traditional server provider.

From smartphones to hyperscale data centers, from the consumer to the enterprise, hardware is becoming increasingly modular. In many ways (but not all), this is consistent with the trend we’ve seen in software. So could several of the concepts core to the Business of Applications be extendable to hardware? Absolutely. As the new digital business transforms to become more agile, adaptable, powerful, and quick, it must understand the true impact of modularity—as it relates to software and hardware. It stands to reason, will hardware also become a core competency of every digital business?

(With 3D printing—Digital-Physical Blur—on the rise, we may be closer than we think…)

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