Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The New (Software) Tier 1

With regard to the automotive supply chain, what do you think of Microsoft, BSquare, Elektrobit, Apple, Google, and QNX? Traditionally, you would call these companies Tier 2 suppliers, meaning they supply services, support and technologies to the traditional Tier 1 suppliers — the Delphi, Visteon, Denso, Continental, etc’s of the world. Unless you have been living under a body control system (I didn’t think rock was appropriate), it should be very obvious that the interior electronic automotive supply chain is changing dramatically.

Take, for instance the role of Microsoft, Elektrobit, and Ford in the Sync project. Microsoft and Elektrobit really were the Tier 1 suppliers to Ford. For the next iteration it appears that Bsquare is the new Elektrobit in the mix. The “traditional” Tier 1 was quickly relegated to a contract manufacturer with a very small margin. Rumor has it that the Tier 1 could get bypassed altogether in future versions of Sync. According to this press release from Bsquare ( “It used to be that auto makers went to companies like Continental, Delphi and Panasonics and ordered a component with a list of capabilities. "And a black box came back that fit in the dash," Crowley said. "Ford said, 'I'm going to break that cycle. I'm going to do this all myself.'"

What impact does this have to the industry in general? This new software tier 1 model has the potential to be challenging for traditional Tier1s, but also to OEMs given the automotive / economic doom and gloom. Why, you ask? Well obviously this new scenario may well impact traditional Tier 1s since now they are competing with the Flextronics of the world.

But for OEMs, at a time when cash conservation is critical, they are now paying for software up front rather than amortizing the software costs (Engineering, Tools, etc.) over a Tier 1’s piece price. Also, they no longer have such a strong buffer and share of risk for liability, warranty, indemnity (especially in the case of Linux investment), etc..

So what should be done? First, some misconceptions must be addressed. Tier 1 suppliers are, at heart, integrators and buffers for warranty, liability, etc. They are skilled not only in automotive lingo, but in the tough requirements and long term supply of the automotive market. I believe the complexity and cost of integration, version control, maintenance, updates, licensing, etc. are often under valued by car companies. As a result of this, IMHO, the new model of the software Tier 1 will have some growing pains before it matures. That being said, traditional Tier 1s need to embrace a more software-oriented skill set. Also, in the current economy, the temptation is to try to get more money up front from the OEMs. If your business can afford it, resist that urge and use it as a differentiator against this trend.

For OEMs, perhaps holding off a bit on the new world of Linux, Software Tier 1s and upfront investment (by you and your suppliers) in software is in order — at least until the economic situation improves. Let the early adopters of this strategy prove out the model (and risk) before wading in. It will allow you to manage cash in this critical time and keep your suppliers healthy. You know often they don’t just provide infotainment — you depend on them for quite a bit more.