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The Bisquick Dilemma

Integration is part of our business. We take small components and combine them into bigger components. Our skill and talent as engineers determine how much value we’ve added in the process. With any luck, we’ve created something our customers will pay us for, plus a little extra to invest in R&D.

But what happens when our suppliers have already done the integration for us? A “system on a chip” leaves little room for improvement. That’s by design; the chip manufacturer wants to make your life easier, but they also want to keep more of the profit for themselves. They make a nearly complete product—just add water. You wrap it in colored plastic, slap on a user interface, add your logo and – voila! – you’re done .

The result is a bit like ready-made pizza or Bisquick, the ubiquitous do-it-all baking mix in American kitchens. With Bisquick and a few wet ingredients, you can make pancakes, biscuits, waffles, cakes, and a lot more. It’s easy, it’s quick, and there’s no talent required. If you can handle a measuring cup and count eggs, you can feed yourself and your family. It’s not glamorous or terribly varied, but it sure is quick and easy.

Have we descended into the age of Bisquick engineering? Has hardware design been dumbed down to the point where the schematics simply say, “Insert Tab A in Slot B?” And if so, is that a bad thing?

On the one hand, hardware design certainly has become a whole lot simpler than it was, say, 30 years ago. Back then, there were few standards regarding digital chip interfaces, and ICs from one company didn’t always work with chips from another. There was as much art as science in getting some circuits to work. Nobody really misses that.

On the other hand, that fine-grained hardware development led to some really creative solutions. I came across one company that implemented its disk controller entirely in software. The controller board was just a microprocessor and some high-current buffers; the actual disk interface worked by wiggling the I/O lines under software control. It was cheap, clever, and easily upgraded in the field. (It was also slow.)

There’s no denying that higher chip integration leads to smaller and more interesting products. We’d never have iPods if everything had to be done in 74xx-series TTL gates. But, at the other extreme, a single-chip MP3 player leaves little room for the hardware developer to, well, develop anything.

On the plus side, that MP3 player will get to market a lot sooner than if its developers had needed to create it from scratch. On the downside, the product will work exactly like a competitor’s product. It’ll probably look the same, too, apart from the color of the plastic and the logo on the front.

Or maybe we’re just looking at another phase of integration; a higher level of abstraction. If that MP3 player is really just a component inside a larger product, then you’re ahead of the game. If your job is developing dashboard electronics for new cars, you probably welcome ready-made MP3 players, and their high level of integration is a boon, not a hindrance.

The other way to look at this is as an opportunity for programmers and industrial designers. If hardware is becoming generic, then software, packaging, user interfaces, and marketing all take on increased significance. That’s certainly true of Apple: its MP3 players aren’t significantly different inside from anyone else’s, but the user perception and market share certainly say otherwise. Even Macintosh hardware is now almost indistinguishable from a PC’s, yet the software (and marketing) create a different user experience. Ford, Lincoln, (and until recently) Volvo, and Jaguar cars all use the same hardware underpinnings with only minor styling differences, yet they are sold at very different prices to different audiences. Software, packaging, and marketing have become the new differentiators.

That’s not to say the profession of hardware design is obsolete—far from it. Chip-level design is more difficult than ever, and it’s expensive and critical, too. ASIC projects stretch for years, and most companies are betting their entire product lines on a successful outcome. The hardware-design team is crucial to success and even survival.

But, assuming the hardware works, it’s that layer of software frosting that the customer will see. What sets one MP3 player apart from the others isn’t the chip(s) inside but the user interface, features, ease of use, and integration with other gadgets. That’s why good user-interface design is so important, as we saw last week.

Even with Bisquick, a good cook can create something special. A dash of spice here, a drop of sweetness there, and a generic recipe turns into something remarkable and unique. Generic ingredients don’t have to lead to generic results. They can, and, if you’re in a hurry, it’s nice to have the quick-and-dirty option. But ready-mixed, off-the-shelf ingredients don’t have to be a recipe for blandness. If you know where to innovate, you can have your cake and eat it, too. 

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