Motherhood, Apple Pie and Demodularization

Modularity is next to motherhood, hot dogs and apple pie in the pantheon of unarguably good things. However, for every rule there are exceptions, and in technology, at least, we may have entered the age of demodularization. For the moment, hot dogs and all the rest are safe, at least at my house.

For decades we’ve had it drilled into our heads that when we make products modular we have greater latitude to mix and match components so that we can arrive at configurations that, like Baby Bear’s bed, are just right. It’s hard to argue against modularization because it was one of the handful of ideas that created the modern technology industry.

Prior to modularization, vendors bundled hardware, disks, operating systems and in some cases early applications. Customers bought the whole enchilada or nothing. Then in 1969 IBM unbundled its mainframe components and operating system, allowing customers the freedom to buy just the modules they wanted and look to the market for others. That decision more or less made the mini-computer industry possible and eventually gave rise to microcomputers and a little company in Redmond, Wash., that focused just on operating systems.

The Down Side of Modularity

Standards are a creature of modularity because it makes no sense to have modules that don’t talk to one another, and the two grew together like a vine climbing a trellis. In software today, we see the effects of standards and modularity — for what is a platform but a set of standards that enable modular applications to work together? Modularity as a software idea has a long way to run — it has only been a few years since the idea of software modularity really took hold, after all, and there’s still lots of infrastructure to build.

Hardware is a different matter, though, and small changes that could be the beginning of an emerging movement to demodularize hardware may be taking shape under the auspices of — who else — Apple. Before we go there, think about this:

The down side of modularity is the same set of standards that make modularity possible to begin with. If you build a standard that’s too loose, lots of products can fit under the umbrella but the fit, finish and performance may not be wonderful. So you give up something to achieve modularity. File that under the heading of “tolerances.” If a standard is too rigid, then — predictably — few modules will measure up, and while their integration may be good, there may not be many participants at the party.

A Small Irony

So, back to Apple and demodularization. Making products less modular enables vendors to make them better along various axes. In Apple’s case, the newest MacBook (as well as the iPhone) no longer has a removable battery. The ability to remove a battery has been a given as long as there have been laptops, and the idea makes a lot of sense, especially when batteries can wear out or cause fires.

However, if the reliability of a module can demonstrably exceed the working life of the system, then there is no reason for that particular module. The module can effectively become part of the irreducible footprint of the system. This is what happened with the MacBook. By demodularizing — or integrating, depending on your view — the MacBook’s battery, Apple has been able to lighten the load, recover some space and rededicate that space to more battery cells extending the useful charge life to seven or eight hours, depending on the unit. This is a big deal, since lower weight and longer charge life are two highly prized attributes of electronics and drivers of adoption.

In turn, there is a small irony happening: As the software industry continues to modularize through platform proliferation, the hardware industry may be on the verge of going the other way. Of course, we need to guard against over-doing it in hardware or we could wind up back where we started. But I can’t help but think that a degree of consolidation at the hardware level makes a lot of sense, especially in a time when we need lighter and brighter gadgets to run our increasingly mobile business processes that use increasingly modular software products.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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