Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Open Systems For Open Minds

Open Systems for Open Minds: That phrase was my all-time favorite slogan at Sun Microsystems. While it might seem obvious that of course everyone would want an open system, it turns out this does not always prove to be true. An open system is open or closed depending on the industry, the time period, and context, as well as the organization supporting the system.
In the computer industry, open or closed is better defined than manufacturing. If you ask someone in the IT industry what it means to be an open system, the answer you will receive likely will be along the lines that is one that has an operating system that has its source code out in the open and public, uses the most popular and open programming languages and uses standard interfaces that are open and royalty-free that makes it portable between architectures. If you were speaking to someone who has been in the computer industry a long time, the answer would be very short and simple, such as a Unix or Linux box.
What about the time period? If we were to go back to the 1960s and early 1970s, open computing would not have been a common term. Terms such as “IBM plug compatible” would have been the definition of open. Plug-compatible means that you could take a board from an older main frame and use it in the backplane of a new computer of that same vendor. In 1981 IBM announced the IBM PC and created, some would argue by mistake, an open hardware platform where the terms IBM PC compatible and PC compatible meant it could run the same OS and software as the IBM PC, but would be, typically, a less expensive system. The IBM PC was viewed as an open system in the 1980s with Microsoft’s DOS. In the 1980s, Sun Microsystems redefined open systems with the introduction of the SPARC platform where other companies could not only make systems that could use the SPARC processors, but companies could manufacture their own SPARC processors. In the 1990s the Linux operating system redefined the word “open” in a way that still stands today.
How about context? This gives meaning to both the industry and the time period discussions. For example, is Apple an open system? Is Microsoft an open system? Is Oracle an open system? How about Google? How about iOS versus Android? It could be argued that Microsoft is more open than Apple in 2013. Apple’s Mac OS X is based on Unix, but no one considers Mac OS X an open operating system such as Linux in 2013. Not too many individuals call Oracle open, but they own MySQL and Java. Those technologies are open. Most of what Oracle owns is not open. Oracle might argue that they publish their interfaces, so they are an open platform. Many think of Google as being the anti-Microsoft and being open, but are they really? It depends. Is Facebook open? Not from a data standpoint, and it should not be open. That model works for them because they have a closed garden approach that makes sense. How about Twitter? OneI can search Twitter at — does access to data make it open or closed? As you can see, context changes everything.
The other aspect of context is the organization behind the system. AMT has been the key driving and supporting force behind MTConnect from the very beginning. Specifically, Paul Warndorf, VP of Manufacturing Technology at AMT, has been the key person driving MTConnect. No Paul Warndorf, no MTConnect. Don’t get me wrong — lots of folks, yours truly included, have helped out a great deal, but you must have the singular driving force that has control of the money and the vision. AMT has invested literally millions in MTConnect not because of any hidden revenue stream for AMT, but rather because it was the right thing for their members and more importantly, it was the right thing for manufacturing. Sun Microsystems had Scott McNealy as the guiding visionary for doing things the right way at Sun. It was impossible to overstate the importance of Scott to Sun Microsystems. When companies and individuals look at a given technology, the organization and the individuals in that organization play a large role in the determination of the overall motive behind a given system. While motivation can sometimes be difficult to ascertain, when it is a 501( c ) ( 6) non-profit as both AMT and the MTConnect Institute are, the questions become less probing on real intentions. This, however, does not mean that we do not receive probing questions at the MTConnect Institute, but they are usually more quickly accepted when the person realizes we are a nonprofit.
Manufacturing is moving to open systems with MTConnect, but there is still an ocean of different definitions of what an open system really is in the world of manufacturing. For example, I was at IMTS 2012 and asked this question of those who came to the Emerging Technology Center (ETC) and when I walked the floor visiting other exhibitors. The answers I received were quite interesting. In the software area, if I was talking to a vendor who was a member of the MTConnect Institute, the answers were more in line with what you would expect in the computer industry. However, if I spoke to someone who was not a member of the MTConnect Institute, the answers gave me flashbacks to the 1970s. This is not meant to be a derogatory statement, just a reflection of the importance of industry, context and time period for manufacturing. One of the more common examples of the answer to my question, “What is the definition of an open system in manufacturing,” was defined as, “the ability to pay for the manual, license and software development kit in order to access the proprietary Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).” There is no one in the computer industry who would define open in that fashion in the year 2013.
This is not to say that a closed model might not be what is best for a given company. Look at Apple. For anyone who owns Apple stock, they are very pleased to have stock in a closed system. This is true if they did not purchase Apple when it was at over $700 a share, and as I write this it is trading at $452 a share. I own lots of Apple products. I am writing this on a MacBook Pro with an iPhone 5 in my pocket. But, that is not the point of the more interesting question, which is, will iPhone still be the phone to have in 5 years or will Android be the dominant platform? There are those who argue it is today. It has been stated that Android out ships iPhone by almost 4:1 today, so what will it be in 5 years? Who knows, but the point is that Android is based on an open platform and Apple is not. Go try to create an iPhone clone and let me know how that works out for you. Customers like open systems because it gives them choice. But, why do some companies like Apple do so well? They innovate and their systems just work, as one would expect. Apple will need to out-innovate and out-integrate the entire Android cast of players. That is easy to say, but very hard to do, as we all know.
What is the best way to learn about open versus closed systems? Attending the [MC]2 2013 MTConnect: Connecting Manufacturing Conference. This conference will take place April 10-11, 2013, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The conference will feature something for everyone from end users, to software developers, to C-level executives, to students, to manufacturing technology builders, to anyone who just wants to really understand MTConnect! This conference is aimed at promotingBOTH the business and technical benefits and implementation of MTConnect®, as well as showcasing commercially available products utilizing the standard.
Who Should Attend?
  • End Users – shop owners, plant managers and anyone in manufacturing interested in improving productivity
  • Industry thought leaders
  • MTConnect® Institute Participants
  • Equipment Suppliers
  • Students
  • Professors
  • Software Developers
  • Distributors
  • ISVs
  • Integrators
  • Consultants
  • Anyone wanting to learn more about MTConnect
What does the future for manufacturing hold in terms of open systems? There have been other attempts at open systems in manufacturing besides MTConnect that had very limited results. Those efforts might have been affected by limited resources and limited vision. I do believe we will continue to see manufacturing embrace open systems. Not because of any altruistic reason, but because it makes good economic sense. The challenge with entirely closed systems is that you must place all the bets correctly. If you do, then you can win big. If you miss any of those bets, changing platforms might be your death knell. Open systems are on a continuum and the industry, the time period, context, as well as the organization supporting the system all matter when coming to the conclusion whether the system is truly open, partially open, basically closed or completely proprietary.
Hang on folks, because the next 5 years will be quite interesting in manufacturing. I am going to borrow one of Sun Microsystem’s best slogans and say, “Open Manufacturing for Open Minds.” Sounds like something I need to put on a t-shirt!

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