Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Medtronic Remote Programming Patent

Medtronic has been working on remote programming for medical devices for at least a decade. I cannot be certain because I do not and have not worked for Medtronic. But, I have on good authority that I am not far off.

I believe that Medtronic's patent (#7,565,197, please see earlier posts) reveals not only the extent of Medtronic's work on remote programming and their level of development of this technology, it reveals a product development path. I can make this statement with confidence because I have been in this business for a long time. The strategy that I believe Medtronic has taken is in keeping with long-standing trends in technology development.

Over the last several decades, the trend has been to move away from  specialized processors specifically designed for a particular domain to more powerful, general-purpose processors. This enables products to be defined more by software than by hardware. Processing power has become smaller, less power hungry and cheaper, thus allowing software to become the means for defining the system's capability. Furthermore, this enables multiple products to be defined by a single hardware platform.

I think most everyone in the industrialized countries have had some experience with software-defined systems. Numerous products that many of you have encountered run on a standard hardware platform. This is particularly true of products based on a PC hardware platforms. I have been part of the early stage development of two companies who both use a PC platform, but define their products with software. The products could not be more different, but nevertheless they still use the same hardware platform.

The Medtronic patent suggests a similar product strategy ... that different products will use fundamentally the same hardware architecture, but they will be defined by the software that they run. So, a pacemaker, a neurostimulator and a drug pump will share the same processor hardware platform, but their operation will be defined primarily by the software that they run. For example, take some time and examine pacemakers, ICDs. CRTs/CRT-Ds, neuro-stimulators, drug pumps, etc.  Although they have different purposes, they have enough in common to consider the possibility that all of them could share a common processor platform. 

The implications are significant for all functional areas within Medtronic, from research and development, product development, software development and management, and from product support. Medtronic can leverage its enormous scale to make its scale as a company a major asset. It can substantially reduce the number of hardware platforms it supports, it can leverage its software development capabilities to have its software development groups produce software for multiple product lines, it can create more products without a substantial requirement for additional support each time a product is produced. The list of benefits goes on and on. I shall cover those benefits in later posts.

In the next post I shall drill down into the technical specifics of this patent.

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