When Product Cycles Collide

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2007-01-08
 
 
 
When I heard about the Ford/Microsoft announcement at this weeks Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, my first thought was the radically different time frames of the consumer auto and the consumer electronics markets. Ive never kept a new car for less than six years, and my typical tenure for a car that I buy new is closer to fifteen years—but the oldest PC that I own and still actually use is only 8 years old, and that machine is only used when I need its support for a legacy serial-port application.

Any notion of putting a more advanced operating environment into a car, it seems to me, must crucially depend on either a far-sighted and open-ended vision of a bump-free upgrade path, or on a modular hardware scheme that makes it easy to swap in a new box—preferably with an industry-standard form factor—to give updated functionality and speed to the functions of a touch-screen display, audio system interface and  wireless connection hardware in a car thats just getting nicely broken in.

Alternatively, and more alarmingly, the auto makers have looked over the fence at the short product cycles of industries like the cellular phone (typical replacement interval 18 months), and are coveting the opportunity to sell someone a new car every two to four years instead of every five to 15. This would attack a trend thats bound to be concerning the auto makers: In 2005, the median age of cars on the road in the United States was almost 9 years, up from 6.5 years in 1990 and 5.1 years in 1969. The auto makers are selling a better product—more efficient, safer, and more luxurious—for a good deal less money, in terms of consumer buying power, than they did a quarter of a century ago, and its killing them. People are shopping more aggressively on price, reducing their brand loyalty, and keeping their cars longer.

The consumer computing industry is facing similar problems, with people tending to keep computers much longer than they once did, and buying new software only when its either required or practically free as part of a new-hardware purchase. But for now, at least, an uncomfortably lengthening product cycle for PC makers looks blissfully and lucratively short to auto makers—and Ford may be jumping at the chance to add an ingredient to its cars that makes people itch for a new one several years sooner than they otherwise might.

Enterprise IT buyers should take note of the increasing influence of consumer markets, and consumer marketing strategies, on enterprise technology choice. At eWEEK Labs, we listed this issue as one of our Top 10 challenges for the coming year. Consumer technologies tend to be shorter-lived, more difficult to repair than replace, less concerned with security, and in many other ways qualitatively different from enterprise technologies. If the container of enterprise IT function is going to become a consumer product, the content of that container may need to be found elsewhere—that is, may need to be purchased as a service, where the service providers infrastructure picks up the slack of meeting enterprise needs for reliability and governance.

Tell me if Ford has a better idea, or if you do, at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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