The Business of FACE: Will the Future Resemble Apple or Android?
The FACE Consortium has been driving an avionics common operating environment standard for some three years now with steady progress. There are numerous industry participants from across the avionics industry committing their time to this endeavor, and they should be commended for their hard work and dedication to the new standard. It is interesting to observe, though, the various industry participants collectively working to essentially re-engineer their whole business model going forward. What has, in the past, been a typical winner-take-all competitive environment will morph into a business model with significantly more cooperation and incentives for interoperability.
The FACE standard defines a software operating environment—a common software environment to support portability of applications and other software elements on multiple hardware platforms. The standard hopes to drive openness, innovation and lower cost, and is hardware-agnostic.
There is also somewhat of an underlying objective to commoditize hardware. As a hardware provider, we would probably see this hardware perspective a bit differently. In the end, FACE-conformant applications need not just to run and to be portable, but to perform on the target hardware and provide value to the deployed platform. Thus, the end solution needs to be more than “FACE conformant” as the consortium defines it. It needs to be performant, if I can invent a word for the moment to make the point.
Computing hardware solutions can span a wide range of capabilities from simple vehicle and mission management computers to High Performance Embedded Computing platforms. Any one of these could host FACE-conformant applications and be deployed on any variety of aircraft platforms. To get a performant solution, however, the FACE standard will probably need to mature over time to take advantage of certain capabilities in underlying hardware architectures—whether simple or complex.
For instance, the FACE Transport Services Segment could include the means to leverage high-performance, multi-processing architectures and data plane transports. Built-in test and background test software, operating within the Health Monitoring and Fault Management framework, will also have different levels of capability depending on hardware provider offerings. Other hardware optimization can come from platform-specific services software.
So a hardware provider, ostensibly on the outside looking in on the FACE Enterprise Architecture, could offer capabilities within the FACE software stack that bucks the hardware commodity objective and that provides better overall performance—and, perhaps, lower program cost. That should be viewed as a good thing because it incentivizes innovation and value-add from hardware providers as well.
And that brings up an interesting point to ponder when we talk about the interplay between the software and hardware. The FACE Consortium describes the FACE business model in the context of the mobile phone market eco-system structure, largely dominated by the Apple and Android duopoly. FACE messages a model with interoperability and options across all three solution elements; hardware, operating systems and applications—and that this end game ought to spawn innovation across all three. But will this produce the same level of innovation and integration as the Apple and Google Android models produce in the mobile market?
At the one end of this mobile market is Apple. Apple provides the hardware solution, the mobile handset and the operating system, offering a closed platform for application development. The total solution is optimized between hardware and software. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the end user, evidenced simply by market share and the value this solution provides the consumer. Perhaps there was, and is, a premium to pay, but it offers tremendous value nonetheless.
The Google Android model offers multiple hardware platforms but Google controls the Android operating system environment. Again, this model has offered tremendous value to end users with myriad applications from multiple providers. But what has happened in this case is a proliferation of hardware platforms supporting the Android operating system. And Google has begun to refine their deployment strategy and partnerships with hardware manufacturers in what they call their Nexus suite of products. Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter S. Mossberg commented recently that “Google hopes this re-engineering will gradually ease the fragmentation of Android …” So although there is some value in openness and options, there is also advantage in highly integrated and optimized solutions.
It would not be a bad thing if there was supplier dominance in any one of these three FACE technology areas—software, hardware and applications. Any dominance would have been achieved through more performant capabilities. The overall objectives still work so long as the FACE business model continues to produce value and innovation. It will still be good for the customer, the DoD, the taxpayer and the warfighter.