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By John Rezabek, Contributing Editor
Recently, Jason Hiner's "Tech Sanity Check" blog in TechRepublic listed five of the things we will miss most from Steve Jobs. One of Jobs' maxims was,"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give it to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." Certainly, in the world of mass-marketed consumer techno-gadgets, Job's penchant for delivering what we want before we knew we wanted it was remarkable. And by delivering a slick, functional and coveted gadget for which customers are happy to pay a steep premium, Apple has been able to maintain the most closed and controlled of operating systems and applications.
I have little doubt that the leaders of our automation supplier community and their shareholders would love to have a moment of Jobs-like genius. Closed, controlled and proprietary means not only can you develop, deploy and market your products cheaper, faster and easier, but also your customers have to come to you for everything. What supplier wouldn't prefer this to the chaos and competition of the Windows or Android world? But as consumers, we know why we like this much more open, chaotic and competitive model: It means "freedom to choose" and better deals for us.
End users' desire for open standards and easy, secure integration is at odds with our supplier community's objective to defeat their competition and make the most income for their shareholders.
Last month, the Fieldbus Foundation (FF) unveiled working prototypes of its newest standard, "Foundation for ROM." ROM, "remote operations management," encompasses everything from SCADA to wireless to remote I/O to a new secure backhaul specification developed in concert with the ISA100.15 wireless backhaul subcommittee and the ISA99 specification for automation security. The prototypes—one each from Smar, Stahl and APAC—were interconnected with a wireless 802.11n and wired Fieldbus HSE backhaul, integrating Foundation fieldbus H1, wired HART, WirelessHART, ISA 100.11a wireless, and simple, discrete I/O. Not only does Foundation for ROM allow the competing wireless mesh networks of ISA 100.11a and WirelessHART to be integrated, but it also provides a standard mapping mechanism for all these diverse providers to standard fieldbus function blocks, supporting its standard scaling, status and fault state propagation. If I were integrating traditional remote I/O, a brownfield site with a mix of wired smart devices and simplex devices, or an unmanned wellhead/industrial gas skid, Foundation for ROM has the goods to make it the specified solution. But—we not only need production-quality ROM platforms such the prototypes created by Smar, Stahl and APAC, we also need our favorite host systems to support it.
Our supplier community differs from the mass-market consumer market served by Apple and its competitors in this way: Apple's leadership and staff are all end users of the products they create, and they go home each day to more end users of their products. This makes for a pretty tight feedback loop and ample data to anticipate future needs and appetites. Our supplier community creates a lot of amazing products, but they really need us to understand how we use them. We typically don't buy something until one of our peers has vetted it. None of the current leaders in our field got there without a lot of input—and sometimes pain—from their pioneering customers.
Most of our suppliers already have solutions for the applications addressed by Foundation for ROM. But nearly all are proprietary, and all of them can be found lacking in scope, security, openness and/or uniformity.
Could it be customers who provide the "Steve Jobs" sort of spark that results in game-changing innovations in our field? It's end user vision and persistence that's powered much of the Foundation for ROM and corresponding ISA 100.15 backhaul specifications. End users have to insist their favorite suppliers support open, interoperable solutions, or we'll remain saddled with the closed, proprietary ones.