Using Systems Thinking to Design the Smart Phone of the Future

Irfan Mohammed By David Rosenbaum
February 4, 2011

MIT System Design and Management (SDM) student Irfan Mohammed, whose SDM thesis focuses on emerging strategies for developing and marketing mobile computing platforms—specifically how Apple, Android, and Symbian will be competing and how they should be competing—points to a man tapping at his cell phone and says, "That’s the key computing device of the future.

"Imagine," he continues, "the man places his phone on the table. It projects a screen onto the wall behind it and a keyboard onto the table in front of him. Now you have a fully functional computer that you can carry around in your pocket."

Mohammed believes that in the battle between the iPhone and Android, the latter has the upper hand. This is due to the fact that Android’s open source platform is decoupled from the hardware (the physical phone), and allowing greater scope for innovation. "Apple’s approach requires the company to produce both hardware and software," he says. "Google and Android just need to produce software." And, as Mohammed wrote in MIT Technology Review last August, "In the end, it is not the phones but the applications which make a particular mobile platform popular."

For Mohammed, former vice president of product development at Bangalore-based Sourcebits Technologies, the world’s largest provider of mobile applications, the synergy between his career and his SDM training is obvious. But at first his path to his eventual SDM degree in engineering and management was not so straightforward.

Mohammed began as a software engineer, developing and managing products for Verizon from 2001 to 2008 and, like many engineers who achieve a measure of success, he soon was charged with leading teams. Although confident that he could direct engineers, he still felt he "lacked the tools to be in that position. I needed an end-to-end systems view that took into account all of the stakeholders, market conditions, and the impact a new product could have on the market.

"I thought that I should get an MBA."

Mohammed, who received his bachelor’s in engineering in electronics and communications from Osmania University, in Hyderabad, India, and his M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida, was derailed in his initial pursuit of an MBA when he instead took a job as senior technical consultant with Murex, a firm that makes a software investment tool that has 60 percent of the world’s market share. Mohammed was responsible for the on-site implementation and integration of the Murex tool, his first time in a primarily customer-facing role.

Again, he began applying to MBA programs. It was during this process that Mohammed met SDM Director Pat Hale and discovered SDM.

"My value proposition," says Mohammed, "is my deep technical expertise. An MBA would be specific to marketing and finance and although that’s important, I wouldn’t be leveraging my experience. At SDM, I’m learning business strategy and gaining the ability to analyze the market landscape. I’m learning how to map product design and development needs to systems architecture." In fact, he was hired by Sourcebits before he had even completed his first year at SDM. "In retrospect," he concludes, SDM was "the obvious — and the best — choice."

Photo by L. Barry Hetherington