I’m not referring to a science fiction movie in which a malicious computer seeks to control all life on earth through our networks, but that technology has become the essential foundation for modern life and business. Witness the headline in informationweek.com (Nov 8, 2011) “Ford Is Now a Software Company,” and the Dec 20, 2011 wsj.com article on “Students Shift to Computer Science.”
Chris Murphy, in his global CIO column in informationweek.com, examines the implications of Ford’s plan to constantly update the touch screen panel in selected models of its line up. Ford is mailing the software update to 250,000 Ford owners to fix version one problems and add features such as tablet integration and better voice response to MyFord Touch.
I loved my first car, the Ford Falcon, because it was reliable. It went almost 200,000 miles before one of my brother’s roommates totaled it in an accident. Ford was good in those days at building reliable mechanical vehicles. Once a car rolled off the assembly line, it did not change. What you saw in the dealers lot was what you lived with until your next auto. Entertainment on my Falcon consisted of a radio. Expectations are different now. I think the DVD player on my Toyota Sienna is quaint because it can not download new movies from Netflix on the road.
Ford gains a competitive advantage with its MyFord Touch, but technology evolves or dies. Ford’s manager of Sync platform development, Gary Jablonski, claimed that, “We plan to do it constantly” [upgrade the software]. He added, “Unfortunately, my job is never done.”
Murphy observes that, “What does it mean for Ford to be a software company? In terms of people, it requires new skills, from software develops to ‘human-machine’ engineers to design touch screens. In terms of process, it means two different innovation cycles: one for the metal, for the software.”
Ford seems to understand these differences, but there are implications for this trend not mentioned in the article. Will customers want to keep their cars longer if they can have new features without trading-in their vehicles? Software is notoriously unreliable compared to mechanical devices. Could drivers become dependent on MyFord Touch and seek damages if they fail at crucial times?
As the Chinese proverb says (sort of), we live in interesting times.
Students are regaining interest in technology classes, but not because they want to write programs. Wsj.com reported that, “The number of declared undergraduate computer science majors at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science jumped 12% this year over last year; at New York University, the number rose 10%. Queens College and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., also reported jumps in the number of computer science majors. At the same time, the number of students enrolled in computer science classes has surged between 30% and 50%, professors said.”
“The increase follows a national trend: Computer science majors increased 7.6% across the country from 2009 to 2010, the most recent available data, according to the Computing Research Association.”
“‘Computing now penetrates into just about every line of business and academic discipline,’ said Zhigang Xiang, chair of Queens College's Computer Science Department. ‘It's hard to find one field where you don't need it.’”
“‘People certainly realize [computing] is now getting to be a basic skill in the 21st century,’ Mr. Xiang said.”
An information technology major will become a jumping off point for many professions similar to the many lawyers who do not actively practice law, but find legal knowledge useful.
Technology frequently provides a competitive advantage. The case of Frito-Lay drivers equipped with hand-held devices to help stock store shelves is well-known. Online stores have improved their technology to shave days or hours off the deadline for Christmas delivery to gain an edge over rivals.
Not all competitive barriers are created by technology, but enough are that you should think in terms of understanding your competitors use of technology to gain an advantage and, of course, how your organization could use technology to win against your rivals.