Following the invisible thread of software into the future

IBM Rational's GM inspires with a compelling vision

IBM Rational GM, Danny Sabbah's keynote at the recent Innovate conference painted an inspiring future picture for anyone involved with software. He described the pivotal role of software-powered Smarter Products in IBM's vision of a Smarter Planet. And lest you feel alienated because you don't work for a software company or a product company, don't worry...you do. All companies are becoming software companies and products are evolving into inter-organizational systems of systems with software being the "invisible thread" that stitches them all together. Sabbah spiced the discussion up with some great statistics projecting that there will be a Trillion interconnected smart devices by 2011 that are the building blocks of these systems.

All very appealing at the conceptual level, but Sabbah went on to make it beautifully concrete by talking through an only slightly futuristic example. The scenario brilliantly illustrated the concept of a system of systems and running through which you could almost picture the invisible software thread.

The story starts with an embedded device, in this case a heart monitor embedded in the chest of a guy who probably wouldn't still be kicking 20 years ago. And when the poor guy's chest full of software figures out that his heart is going south, it shoots off a software signal flare to summon an ambulance, calculating that the patient's survival prospects will drop by about half, if the troops don't get there in five minutes.

Back at the ambulance ranch, a software dispatcher knows the GPS coordinates of every ambulance in the city and what each is up to. It crunches that data and the patient's location through some fancy algorithms and then dispatches just the right wagon in the direction of the ailing patient. The ambulance, itself a rolling data center run by 50M lines of code, receives the optimal route on its navigation system, further optimized by the interface to the city's traffic control systems. It's a lot easier to beat the short deadline when you can cheat by turning lights green all along the route.

As the ambulance speeds along towards our hero, alerts and patient records are flashed to his doctor's PDA and to the EMTs on board. The EMT's arrive at the scene just in time and using their now complete knowledge of the patient's history and current condition, take just the right measures to quickly and safely stabilize him. When a few minutes later the again optimally-routed ambulance arrives at the optimal emergency room, the patient's doc and the emergency room staff are waiting and ready to launch into a customized treatment plan. Danny didn't mention it, but I'm betting there is also some software involved in getting the bill off to the insurance company after the patient recovers.

I laugh when occasionally I hear the archaic expression that someone is in "the software business." It's clear that software is becoming every business and every business becoming a software business. Further, the software thread doesn't stop at organizational boundaries. In the example above, the systems of half a dozen or more organizations are talking together via messages in packets traveling through the ether. And that only works through openness and collaboration on top of each organization's innovation. That implies a healthy mix of cooperatively developed open source and proprietary software...and LOTS of it. It's good to be in the software biz!

For more on Sabbah's speech, you can check out my Black Duck blog.

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