BOX 1.3

Components, Systems, and Applications

Even in fields traditionally associated with information technology (IT), the methods and subjects of research can vary. These problems can be viewed on three levels:

  • Components are individual elements of computing and communications systems that have specific interfaces and functions. They include hardware and software.

  • Systems are amalgams of many interacting components that are combined to perform a particular set of functions, however broadly those functions may be defined. Systems must maintain their performance guarantees under widely varying and unknown external (and internal) conditions.

  • Applications are components and systems that are embedded in a larger environmental or organizational context to solve particular problems, such as air traffic control or electronic commerce. They provide value to end-users, whether the end user is an individual or an organization.

The distinction between components, systems, and applications is not absolute but depends on the perspective from which they are viewed. A personal computer (PC), for example, may be considered an application by a microprocessor designer, a system by a PC designer, and a component by a network designer. As IT has become more integral to everyday life and work, the set of research problems associated with systems and applications has grown. These problems result from success in building components, such as the PC and the Internet, which have in turn created opportunities for new systems and applications.

is often impossible to follow the traditional open research model, with results broadly available for review. As suggested earlier in this chapter, research investments that are coupled more closely to market objectives tend to refine and exploit existing knowledge rather than lay the groundwork for the more radical innovations upon which the industry's future success will surely rely. The shortcomings of this mode of operation are obvious in the areas of security—where, for example, the cycle of iterative product release, public announcement of product flaws, and product fixes has become the norm (CSTB, 1999b) —and of usability, where, for example, the lack of time for studying how real people with differing abilities use systems and what they need and want from the systems continues to constrain ease of use (CSTB, 1997). The situation is compounded by long-standing difficulties in improving productivity in the development of quality software; progress in software engineering continues to be elusive (CSTB, 1999b).

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