Apple's Surprising New Market

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By Rimpynths
February 27, 2009

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Surprising new market for Apple

I work in embedded product development in general, and medical device development in particular. It probably won't surprise you to learn that I haven't seen a lot of Macs in my field. So I was surprised when one of our clients wanted to use a Mac for their new product, a neonatal therapeutic device. The overall system is a custom embedded device connected to a desktop computer. The device sends data to the desktop, which performs some calculations, and then adjusts the response of the device. The neonatal baby interacts with the embedded device and the NICU nurse interacts with the desktop computer.

I'm not sure how much I should say without violating the confidentially of our client, but now that I look at their updated website, I can see that they are starting to reveal more information about their product. So I guess it's not really breaking any confidentiality to share what's publicly available, including the fact that you can see Macs in the photos on the web pages below.

Note that I'm using the IP address instead of the company's name in the web address because I'd prefer to not have this post show up if anybody searches their name. Not that there's any inside information in this, but I'd prefer to let them handle their own PR, not Google. So please don't mention their name in any of your replies or else I'm going to have to get all Milligram46 on you.

(Incidentally, I noticed from the second web page that they gave away iPods in a drawing at one of the events they held. I wonder if they have some deal worked out with Apple? Apple might be excited at the prospect of getting more Macs into hospitals. I have zero knowledge of their business arrangements, just musing.)

I was curious why they chose a Mac for this product. I've been working in medical device development for the past ten years (with the exception of a short stint at TMF) and this is the first time I've ever heard anybody mention a Mac. The only Macs I run across in my field is one old Mac stuck in a corner somewhere in the office so that we can check that the company website displays correctly for "the others".

I asked the engineers behind this product why they decided to go with a Mac. One of their answers was not surprising: they really like the form of a Mac. Aesthetically, it has a more inviting feel, especially in a stressful place like a neonatal intensive care unit. Another one of their answers was surprising but makes sense after hearing about it: they like the fact that it's a closed system.

Medical devices typically have a very rigorous product validation process. A medical device will have a long list of product requirements and each requirement has to be validated, meaning that you have to perform a test to demonstrate that each requirement has been satisfied. Validation testing can be long and expensive. When a hardware component changes, you often have to execute the validation test procedure again. They like the fact that they can buy a complete system from a single manufacturer that will tightly control changes to that system, thus avoiding any retesting due to unexpected hardware component changes. So in this case, Apple's closed system works in their favor.

However, I should also add that I've worked on about 10-15 medical devices in the past 10 years, and this is the first time that I've ever come across a device that includes a complete desktop computer as part of the product. It's very rare to see that configuration. Most devices are self-contained embedded systems. So this is not a big market for Apple and medical devices like this probably won't add even 0.1% to their revenue. But it's still a notable new market for them.

What is becoming more common is designing medical devices around single-board computers (SBCs), and that will be a significant market. Apple seems to have no interest in this market or really embedded device development in general. (Other than their own embedded devices such as the iPod and iPhone of course, but they have no interest in licensing their OS and platform builder tools to other embedded product developers that I'm aware of.) Microsoft on the other hand has been pursuing this market pretty aggressively and doing so successfully. We've used Linux on some prior products with SBCs, and now we're shifting to .NET and WinCE/WinXPe. We can create UI prototypes that are twice as good in half of the time versus Linux, and that is well worth the extra $3/unit cost of licensing WinCE.

Apple has made some interesting business decisions and those decisions appear to be working out for them. By pursuing a closed system, they've given up widespread, general use adoption of their OS and development tools, but in return they've gained a reputation for stability and user-friendliness that makes it well-suited for certain environments. As a developer, I've never really thought of the three major platforms as being good, better, and best. There are different tools for different jobs and they each have characteristics that make them the best choice for a particular application.