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For most of us who are deeply involved in the electronics hardware market, we are used to talking about new products and technologies, the future of things to come, and probably most importantly, the challenges or issues that we, as an industry, are facing.
All of us, technologists and consumers alike, know about the proliferation of electronic products and how and where they fit in our everyday lives, but the majority of that story has focused on the software that is used in today’s electronic products. Software programs are how we keep our various products up to date; we receive notices (even when we don’t necessarily want them) when a new software app is available for our smartphones, tablets or PCs. The worry about devices staying current isn’t even a worry. Through software upgrades our devices are kept current and the uploading of new features or applications requires just a simple click on the “install upgrade now” prompt.
For hardware, the upgrade process is not so easy. First, you can’t upgrade hardware simply by implementing a code change. We can’t send out new hardware to customers and say “here, install this PCB and all your product concerns will be addressed.” When there is a problem with hardware, it’s never an easy or inexpensive fix. In most instances, when there is a flaw in hardware, it requires a complete redesign of the product. When you add product development time, NRE costs and compressed product marketing windows, fixing one or two problems (no matter how simple they may seem) is an expensive process and one that no hardware technology company wants to face.
Hardware in Hiding
One of the reasons that hardware features, benefits and operational issues are not in the mainstream news on a regular basis is that hardware is not readily visible. I may know that there is hardware in the form of build-up technology in my smartphone but I don’t see that hardware when I use my phone. It’s part of the human condition—if we can’t visually see something, we tend not to put much emphasis on it.
What many consumers and users don’t realize is that hardware is the heart of any electronic product. And, it serves as the foundation for any electronic product in use. If the hardware portion of my electronic product doesn’t function as it should or encounters a problem, all the software programs and applications are not going to operate properly if at all. It’s similar to building a house—if the foundation is not built with the right materials, at some point in time, all of the rest of the house is going to fail and all that will be left is product rubble.
The Influence of Boomers
As noted in so many different aspects of the media, the “boomer” generation is the fastest growing segment of the population. And those of us who are “boomers” have come to rely on the electronic products readily at hand. Even more so, electronic products have become extensions of our beings. How often have we left our smartphone behind and, as a result, felt less “complete” because of its absence? Ours and generations to come are technology junkies requiring 24/7 functionality.
An even more important factor in the boomer equation is that, increasingly, more and more safety and medical devices are relying on properly functioning high-tech hardware. This has become a two-way street. With these types of devices, we can readily communicate with our health givers and vice versa. Even more importantly, evolving medical technologies enable doctors and hospitals to keep track of patient conditions even when the patients are not in the immediate environs of medical facilities. This allows for better patient monitoring, immediate notification of changed patient conditions and the ability to address patient needs in a much more timely and seamless manner.
One of the most important aspects of this technology is the need for it to operate without failures or defaults. This means that the right hardware, beginning with the PCB laminate all the way through components and packaging technologies, has no leeway for improper operation. Mean time between failures must be radically maximized.
People becoming more aware and knowledgeable of the role hardware in today’s electronic products is an important factor in understanding the way hardware functions as part of any of these products. And, telling the story in a variety of ways through a variety of channels is the first crucial step in the process.
We can actually employ a “lessons learned” approach to this process. In 1997, Wind River Systems was the defacto leading company of embedded software technology. At the heart of Wind River’s solutions was its VxWorks real time operating system (RTOS). Despite Wind River being the acknowledged leading provider of embedded software technology, it was practically impossible for the company to get higher visibility for its technology and products. At the time, I was the public relations consultant for the company. I called one of the editors at Business Week and asked him what it would take for the company to be noticed by the broader-based media sphere. His reply was, “As soon as I put RTOS in an article, I lose 80% of my readers. Give me something readily understandable that I can use to write about Wind River’s technology.” At the time, Wind River’s VxWorks was the software technology that was guiding the Pathfinder exploratory spacecraft to Mars. As part of boosting the space program, NASA focused on using COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) technology for the project. The computer onboard Pathfinder was comprised of a single RAD-hardened IBM Risc 6000 single chip with the VxWorks operating system embedded in that chip.
The Wind River part of the story was that the same technology that was guiding Pathfinder to Mars was the same software used in printers, sophisticated cameras, yoke controls in commercial aircraft and stoplights. By leveraging the “story behind the story” angle of Pathfinder, Wind River came out of relative obscurity and achieved technology pop status. And, for a long time, Wind River was identified by its role in Pathfinder.
Hardware technology providers need to create and implement similar communication strategies. The current invisible hardware technology of PCB laminate, chip and packaging technology needs to be brought out of the shadows. As an industry, we need to educate customers and users as to exactly which hardware technology is in today’s current products, its role in those products and how the changing landscape of hardware technology will affect future product generations and critical product functionality and reliability.
Semico’s Impact Conference 2015, “Boards, Chips and Packaging: Designing to Maximize Results,” coming up on October 13, 2015 in Mountain View, California, is the first forum that focuses on all hardware topics. It is comprised of keynote speeches and panel sessions. One of the primary goals of this event is to raise the level of visibility of hardware and its role in today’s electronic products.
About Kella Knack
Kella Knack is a strategic marketing consultant and a co-founder of the Semico Impact Conference—Boards, Chips and Packaging: Designing to Maximize Results. More information about the conference and registration details are available at www.semico.com.