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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Exceptions to openness

When the computer industry began, everything was “proprietary”, meaning owned by one company, e.g. the architecture of an IBM computer was different from that of a Univac. So if you wrote a program for an IBM machine you couldn’t run it on a Univac. (In fact, you couldn’t run it on any other model of IBM computer either!) But now, if you have a C++ or Java program it’s usually not that hard to “port” it elsewhere (the adjective “portable” having been turned into the verb “to port”). And if you obtain an MP3 audio file anywhere you can play it on any music player, because they all support MP3 format. “Open architectures” have taken hold. On the hardware front, when IBM introduced its PC it published specifications so that anyone could build cards that plugged into it to provide video, audio, you name it.

But if you buy a song from Apple’s iTunes music store, the only portable music player you can play it on is an iPod, because it’s in a proprietary format called “protected AAC” that is designed to prevent you from playing it on a competitor’s player. And if you have software written to be run under Microsoft Windows, it won’t run elsewhere. No openness here, yet iTunes and Windows are market leaders. Why?

Openness is great, but it’s messy. Consensus needs to be built, which takes time. And because there are always multiple standards organizations working in any area there are often standards that are similar but not identical (e.g. U.S. vs. Europe). As Prof. Andrew S. Tanenbaum has been quoted, “the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from”.

There is an effective alternative to open standards: a single person or company can set the standard instead, and act as a benevolent dictator. Microsoft defines Windows, and if a decision is needed about something, Microsoft will make it — and it won’t take years. On the music front, because Apple controls everything in the iTunes/iPod world, it’s been able to make deals that nobody else could.

Many years ago I observed that in any one area there seemed to be, over time, room for one, and only one, proprietary architecture to have large market share.

Here’s why I think that is. The problem with dictatorships is that you can’t have more than one in an area, or they spend all their time warring against each other, all losing strength, while the “open” states remain prosperous. But if one dictator defeats the others, or if one never allowed any others to gain strength in the first place, it is possible for that dictator to compete with its “open” competitors as long as its offering is good enough that customers will tolerate being locked in to one supplier.

Comments welcome.

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