Monday, March 21, 2011

Architecture: A Competitive Advantage

I recently attended a seminar with James Utterback, an MIT Sloan professor who wrote the book Design Inspired Innovation. He started the talk by something that was clear to me but I never noticed: that today many companies have access to the same technology but it is the design that distinguishes them and makes their products different. He also points out that great products can enhance our lives and he points to the Applie Ipod, an innovative wheel chair, and a new saddle that protects a horses back and makes the rider more comfortable.

Design and architecture is starting to be seen as a commodity and also collaboration between customers, suppliers, manufacturing, national labs, universities, and other open sources of knowledge. An example of how this works was presented by a speaker of the seminar, the founder of Vigix This company has only a handful of employees and contracted out the design of their product to IDEO, the manufacturing to Flextronic, and had a number of other agreements to other specialty companies. Typically these resources were only available to larger companies, but this knowledge is becoming more open and the expertise available for purchase.

His talk and his papers also emphasized the need for simplicity in design. An example is the Google search interface versus the Yahoo search interface. The Google interface remains amazingly simple and the theory is that it became more useful because of that simplicity (I contend it also had superior search functionality to the other engines and that was a big part of its success). He also talked about how companies make simple products complex over time (I’m a witness and shamefully a contributor to that in the products I’ve worked on).

Systems, he says, are greater than the individual components that make them up. Simple ideas may create new combination of component interaction and may not even require new technology. This is architecture. An example of how a system is greater than the sum of its parts: An Olympic skier who won the overall event but doing well in each of the individual events but not winning any of them.

He defines product architecture as a map in the abstract of subsystems and their interface or connections. Products today must be built modularly so that they can be integrated easily but adapted to individual tastes. This is how product platforms are born. The Black and Decker power tools, built around a singular battery power supply are an example. The book states that the interfaces these days should be open rather than proprietary as it gives the customer more flexibility (although it does leave the firm wide open to the competition).

After attending this talk, I give even more importance to the job of the Software Architect. I also see the trend for more contracting out of this. Perhaps we need a Software-only IDEO. Start-up anyone?