NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- General Electric (GE) is betting its cloud-based Predix platform will do for factories what Apple's (AAPL) iOS did for cell phones.

With partners including Intel (INTC), AT&T (T) and Cisco (CSCO), GE has rolled out 40 apps this year for industrial companies using its rapidly growing industrial software platform, which combines device sensors with data analytics to optimize performance and extend equipment life.

"The next-generation industrial company is going to have this as a core competency because the physical and digital worlds are going to come together," Bill Ruh, GE's vice president of global software, said at a Deutsche Bank conference in Chicago on Wednesday.

The software business has grown rapidly at GE, which is targeting $5 billion in revenue from it this year, nearly a five-fold jump from 2014, and as much as $8 billion in 2017. GE now has 1,200 employees in software, five times as many as in 2012.

Expanding what the Fairfield, Conn.-based company has dubbed the "Industrial Internet" is a key piece of CEO Jeff Immelt's strategy to return GE to its industrial roots while selling off most of the lucrative finance business. With a market value of $277 billion, GE manufactures products from airplane engines to wind and gas turbines and health-care equipment. 

"In the future, it's going to be about taking analytics and making that part of our product line like a turbine, an engine or an MRI" machine, Ruh said.

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