In Engineering, Function Follows Form

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In the world of design experts, hardware vs. software tensions rule the day. But a closer look at the world of product development shows that functions almost always follows form, in other words, software innovation follows hardware innovation.

By Mark Werwath

Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function” in the twentieth century and the concept would guide architects like Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike architects who were trying to create the best possible form for an already defined function–providing buildings for people and companies–engineers often pioneer completely new forms. The platforms we are designing as engineers take on functions that we never anticipated. We can only create platforms with certain constraints and then expect/hope  the functions can fit within. In the case of engineering, it seems that function often follows form, software following hardware, but with both aspects of development being so important, which should companies focus on?

Prior to the 1980s, it was generally believed that hardware development ruled the world. Software was initially a novelty, and later an annoyance, but over time some companies gradually emerged that focused on software only—and became wildly successful at it. Microsoft immediately comes to mind, but there were many others such as Google, Oracle and Symantec to name a few. As this was happening, the ranks of the hardware engineers were being thinned out and some of the hardware engineers were “re-tooled” to become card-carrying software engineers.

Upon reflection, it seems that the debate was misplaced. Every hardware innovation led to myriad software opportunities and solutions to layer on top of the new hardware. If you look at Apple alone, the invention of the first Macintosh in 1984, the first mass produced GUI computer, had a 9 inch monochrome display which led to innumerable software products and solutions. With the first Mac, the function (software) followed the form (hardware). In the time since the first Mac, we have seen desktop computers, laptops of various sizes and shapes, smartphones and tablets. All of these represent hardware innovations, some very clever, that enabled whole software libraries to be built and software empires to be created.

In the world of slot machines,  the hardware platform was always either a physical constraint that inhibited, or an enabler that liberated the genius of the software engineers. A three reel mechanical slot machine platform has limited amounts of graphics and storytelling ability. Each reel is less than 2.5 inches wide and is loaded with static images printed on the reel strip!! When these mechanical reels are replaced by a 19 inch high def display, the opportunities are almost unlimited as to the stories that can be told and the graphics that can be displayed. Now stretch this to 22 inches or beyond, add in multi-touch capability, and the story telling just gets better yet!

Compared to the old ASCII text based machines of the 1980s, what we are able to display and interact with using today’s technology is nothing short of mind boggling. But each development was liberated by a significant hardware innovation. Even companies like Google and Microsoft are quickly getting into the hardware “game” they once scorned. Perhaps there is a realization that the value of driving the innovation of the hardware/software system is higher than the value of being driven by others. Maybe this is why Google bought Motorola mobility and why Microsoft introduced the Surface tablet. Is this what Apple taught us since 1984, that the value comes from the integrated system?

Bottom line: Engineering managers need to be aware of the power of hardware platforms to shape and mold the technology, product and software roadmaps for their organizations. For the most recent example, check out this article on the Google heads up display glasses. This could very well be the “next big thing” to change the computing world. Yet another reason to upgrade and adapt software to live within the new capabilities of the hardware and to leverage the new technology “frontier.”

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