“Off-the-shelf?” You Wish…


Damaged Car

I’m in the market for a new car. My previous one had an argument with a very large piece of agricultural machinery and, unsurprisingly, came off by far the worst. The crop sprayer didn’t just win on points: it was a knock-out. “Tangled wreckage” doesn’t begin to describe the carnage. Cars, however, can be replaced while people can’t—and I’m glad to say, I survived it all without even a scratch.

I’ve always been a big fan of Fords, so I headed down to the local Ford showroom. I’d decided to replace my outgoing (you’ve heard of “going out with a bang”, right?) car with the same model—but I also need (my wife says I don’t “need” them—I just “want” them) some upgrades.

The showroom had a pretty good selection of the model I was looking for, in a nice range of colors. I could have driven any of them away. But I wanted what we in the UK call a sun roof (despite us never having any sun to speak of), an upgraded sound system and leather finish seats.

It didn’t sound like much to ask—but with each new item I added to my wish list, the salesman sucked his teeth like car mechanics do when you tell them about the noise your engine is making. We ended up far from a car I could drive away today: the salesman thought I might be able to get exactly what I wanted in around six months.

If I was lucky.

All of which got me to thinking about Larry Schaffer’s last post on The Connected Battlefield, in which he bemoaned the fact that military embedded computing still has much to learn—and could benefit from the example of the IBM PC, which allowed you to pretty much configure a computer to your heart’s desire with off-the-shelf components.

Hollow laugh

“Off-the-shelf”. It’s difficult to suppress a hollow laugh. It was back in 1994 that Defense Secretary William Perry challenged the US military to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products and practices in order to realize substantial benefits. Military organizations have indeed realized those benefits—in terms of reduced cost, reduced risk, reduced time-to-deployment, access to leading edge technology and simplification in dealing with obsolescence.

But “off-the-shelf”? Perhaps what Perry meant was “in a lot less time than it currently takes for the military to get from idea to delivery”. And, the fact is: if you want a ‘standard’ embedded computing product—like the standard products my Ford dealer had in his showroom—lead-times are, comparatively, blessedly short. 

Ask for the embedded computing equivalent of a sun roof, leather seats and a better sound system, though and the chances are, as with my experience, you’re looking at a minimum of six months. And probably longer if, for example, your I/O needs are a little out of the ordinary.

Supposing, though, there was a better way of building cars—and mission ready systems? Suppose they were designed in such a way that you just fitted together a number of modules, all of which are stock items? Created in such a way that you could get exactly the specification you wanted—if not exactly off-the-shelf, then certainly in a matter of weeks rather than months? How wonderful would that be?

That may not be as far-fetched as you might imagine—at least in the world of embedded computing. “We have the technology,” as the voiceover at the beginning of “The Six Million Dollar Man” used to say. It can only be a matter of time…


Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

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