Whither the system OEM?

When those of us in industry trade groups gather our membership to define new specifications, we seek a mix of participants, including suppliers of CPU boards, I/O boards, memory, flash devices, and occasionally a chip manufacturer or two. And we usually get an eclectic mix of engineering gurus who interpret the latest technologies, as well as marketing types who try to map these technologies into their view of the latest set of requirements from system OEMs – the folks who put this technology into real products.

That said, there is one glaring omission from this team: the system OEMs themselves. Every year, hundreds of thousands of boards, chips, and memory devices are sold into an incredibly diverse set of products ranging from blood analyzers to vehicles. The system OEMs who design and build these products include medical equipment suppliers, military contractors, telecommunications giants, industrial system designers, commercial equipment suppliers, and others who are highly technical in understanding the requirements of their customers, the ultimate end users of these products. Yet these companies essentially abdicate all responsibility when trade groups begin work to define next-generation standards. They leave it to their suppliers – the chip and board manufacturers – to do as they will with new standards. This leaves the system OEMs with no one to complain to but themselves when all their potential suppliers jump on a bandwagon that they might not even subscribe to.

How many test and measurement companies, medical equipment suppliers, or military contractors gave Intel a piece of their mind when the chip company forced them to toss out those perfectly functional ISA-based designs they’d been shipping for 15 years and start over again with new PCI Express designs? How many system OEMs had any input into the definition of new specifications to replace those based solely on ISA and PCI?

There’s a disease in Silicon Valley that has spread throughout the technical community. It has been around as long as the technology industry itself. The disease enables engineers to define new products that solve a problem they have faced, perhaps for many years. The thinking goes, “I would love to be able to buy this great new product. Of course, my customers are engineers just like me, so they’ll love it too.” At times, this approach is absolutely wonderful. At other times, it can create a disaster of epic proportions.

The cure for this disease has also been around for many years. In successful companies large and small, teams consisting of marketing, engineering, and manufacturing personnel define next-generation products together. It’s marketing’s job to determine if there are potential customers for the product with the features and price point being proposed. Unfortunately, there are still many companies where engineering runs the show, or marketing is too weak to influence product direction. Some engineers even think that marketing only means promoting their inventions after the fact.

The same thing happens in trade groups, where the customers for products built to new specifications are nowhere to be seen. This isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve collectively put our heads in the sand on this issue for years. We do our best with information filtered through participating members, but frequently this information isn’t very good, or more likely, incomplete.

SFF-SIG recognizes this as a serious issue. We want system OEMs to participate in our activities. That’s why SFF-SIG is offering a 50 percent discount on membership to system OEMs who are willing to participate and write about their experiences in an SFF-SIG Working Group. Look for more initiatives in this area from SFF-SIG in the near future.

In the meantime, dear reader, if you are a user of small form factor technology with ideas about where this technology should be going in the future, SFF-SIG wants you. For more information about membership, go to www.sff-sig.org or contact us at info@sff-sig.org. You’d be surprised at how a group of industry leaders will sit up and pay attention and treat every word you say as golden.

Small Form Factor SIG 408-480-7900 info@sff-sig.org www.sff-sig.org