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GE and CEO Jeff Immelt Think Apps Are the Future of Industry

Locomotives, jet engines, wind turbines and ... apps?

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Wind turbines and jet engines don’t always make people think of software applications — unless you’re General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, that is.

At GE, the company specializes in big, industrial products like locomotives. But its new product is a little more Silicon Valley: An app store.

Immelt spoke Tuesday at GE’s annual Minds and Machines conference in San Francisco and said the company plans to launch an app store by the end of the year to complement the kinds of industrial products it builds. These apps won’t look like the consumer apps you’re likely used to, of course, but they’ll offer ways for those in industries tied to manufacturing to better learn from the machinery they use every day. At launch, the store is expected to have close to 5,000 apps, but Immelt expects that number to jump to 500,000 by 2020.

The idea is that products that roll out of GE’s manufacturing efforts are full of data just waiting to be collected and then analyzed. It has been building apps to do just that internally for a few years now, and last year announced that it would allow other developers outside the company to use, GE’s operating system, to do the same. But there isn’t a great way for GE’s customers to get all those apps, so now it’s taking that idea to the next level by creating a marketplace for these products in the hope that its system will serve as the software layer that connects industrial organizations all over the world.

“Our sense is that our apps will have more meaning if we can allow Predix to become a standard,” Immelt told Re/code. “And in order to have an operating system that works, you have to open it up.”

Immelt says this data collection is key to GE’s success. Data from a jet engine, for example, could help determine when certain parts need to be replaced or how to increase efficiency. That saves GE customers thousands if not millions of dollars, Immelt said.

One of the tasks, of course, is growing a team of software engineers to actually build all the tools that Immelt has in mind. The company has around 15,000 software developers right now, but Immelt said that number will grow “significantly.” When developers come to Silicon Valley, though, it’s probably a safe bet that GE isn’t on the top of their list of prospective employers. That’s why the company launched a recent ad campaign poking fun at the stereotypes surrounding it. Essentially, the campaign plays up the idea that no one knows that GE even employs software specialists.

“One of the reasons we are doing the ads is to recruit,” Immelt said. “We want it to be something that’s memorable. We want it to be a little tongue in cheek.”

GE expects to do $6 billion in software-related revenue this year and $15 billion by 2020. But even with all this effort and attention, Immelt says GE is not and will not identify as a software company. That doesn’t mean he isn’t high on it all the same.

“When we started this five years ago, to be dead honest I didn’t know if this was a good idea or a bad idea,” said Immelt. “I now sit here and say this is a great idea. It’s going to be huge. Not to sound like Donald Trump, but it’s going to be huge.”

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