Viewpoint: How to capitalize on mobile app developers‘ success

In his memoir "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?" former IBM chairman and chief executive officer, Louis V. Gerstner, said of IBM products that they "were not released, rather, they escaped." IBM enjoyed a rare privilege – to take as much time as they felt they needed and to not release a product until they, and they alone, felt the product was ready. Around that same time, Orson Welles pitched wine on TV by saying, "We shall serve no wine before its time."

Such corporate hubris may have been Madison Avenue poppycock for the winery, but it was true blue for IBM. The computer colossus, relatively unperturbed by competition, developed products in secret labs at its own pace, releasing them only when pressure from customers became excruciatingly high. Since customers had so few other choices in those days, they had to accept IBM's wine when and how it was served.

Competition changed all that. Led largely by IBM's nemesis, Microsoft, customers became conditioned to accept a radically different delivery model – buggy schlock delivered quickly, but that steadily improved with each new release. Starved for innovation, customers accepted the new model, tolerating such notorious operational faux pas as the blue screen of death and Ctrl-Alt-Delete. In the fog of war that describes the software industry of the late 20th century, speed to market was all that mattered, and vicious, messy, indiscriminate and often brutal development was essential for survival.

IBM, wholly unprepared for this new type of warfare, suffered and fell behind. Into this fog was born a new model for rapid development – the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Fast and reckless

MVP is the James Dean of development strategies – fast and reckless. Throwing caution to the wind, an MVP developer acts on his Eureka moment with lightening speed, tossing out just enough code to test his idea with as many who are willing to become test users. The developer then carefully watches and listens as early adopters struggle with the nascent product, honors (without judgment) their complaints and suggestions, and then fixes the code on the fly. He then repeats the cycle for as many iterations as it takes to get the product "right," which is not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.

The MVP strategy is the fastest way to get a product to market or, as is often the case, kill it in its crib. It is the dominant strategy used by mobile app developers today, and it is largely responsible for the explosive growth and blinding speed with which they deliver innovation. But MVP couldn't be more alien to highly centralized, careful, top-down organizations – like the old Soviet Union, the old IBM and most modern car OEMs.

I do sympathize with OEMs. Imperfect mobile software rarely causes anyone to die – imperfect cars do. OEMs cannot ever hope to adopt the reckless attitude of MVP style developers whose motto is "Fuck it. Ship it!" OEMs must care, or they will get sued out of business. But, as I wrote in my last post, perfect mobile software, when combined with perfect vehicles, causes people to die – up to ten a day – and it is past time for manufacturers of both products to take collective responsibility for this fatal synergy. But to do that they must find a way to harness the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the army of developers who are today developing apps for mobile handsets, but not for telematics.

So what to do?

To entice app developers, what is needed is a "proving ground" where developers can innovate with speed and impunity and where OEMs can qualify their creations for safety and integrity. This OEM proving ground would be analogous to the United States military's Aberdeen Proving Ground, where emerging products for warfare are tested and refined, often under live fire. Like telematics products, the success (or failure) of military developments is literally a matter of life or death for those who will use them in the field.

I envision this OEM proving ground as having three characteristics. First, the OEM proving ground needs clear specifications for what is required to optimize the safety of the driver and passengers. These are the rules of engagement, analogous to Apple's style guides for iOS apps. For example: "At no time must the app require the user to take his eyes off the road for more than N seconds." Second, the proving ground needs an easily accessible and free modeling tool with which MVP developers can test apps to ensure they meet spec. Such modeling tools are commonly available to app developers for mobile devices, allowing for robust user interface testing, performance load testing and network emulation, among other things. Third and final, if an app meets spec according to the standardized modeling tool and is certified by the OEMs, then it goes for sale in a vehicle app store promoted by all OEMs.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, once said, "To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace." Regrettably, with distracted driving now epidemic, we are already too late to prevent bloodshed. I challenge OEMs and the mobile industry to collaborate more effectively and with urgency. Work together to build the proving grounds and prevent new collateral damage, which is the very lives of our neighbors and children. Move quickly. And when the fog of war has lifted and connected cars are as safe as we can make them, we will drink to peace, even if the wine is not ready.

Brant Huddleston is principal of Danbra, a boutique consultancy specialized in developing technology-based consumer products.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco, Consumer Telematics Show 2014 on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2014 on March 12-13 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014 on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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