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2008-07-10

Interoperability: What's the Self-Interest?

I noticed some interesting speculations on whether Microsoft should provide interoperability and does it make sense or not.  I see in that discussion some bafflement about what self-interest in interoperability could be.  Looking at examples from my own experience, I leave open for discussion the specific question of interoperability as a self-interest of a dominant producer in our industry.

cross-posted to the Interoperability Forums

Why Interoperate?

Over on the C|Net Forums Buzz Out Loud Lounge, a listener has started a thread on Microsoft Interoperability.  The initial post starts out sounding like a tribute to laissez-faire (basically, hands-off of business) free-market economic policy:

"I've always found the whole 'interoperability' thing a little confusing. Why should Microsoft care whether Linux can interoperate with Windows? Shouldn't their main concern be Windows and their profits? ...

"I still don't get why Microsoft should care one bit about the failure of their competitors. ... If its not in the best interests of the shareholders, should the governments still force them to make such decisions? It feels like it should be the government that props up these companies rather than punishing the monopoly company simply for doing well."

I've taken these quotations out of context.  The original post is more ambivalent, seeking further discussion. 

The three short replies are also equivocal.  These observations stand out for me:

"If MS offers it and others don't using MS won't hurt you but using the others may."

"... What makes capitalism work, is competition.  Interoperability needs to be forced ... ."

"Maybe their customers are asking for it.  Important customers like Businesses.  Besides every interoperable program provides Microsoft a chance to 'show their wares' and convert another customer."

Looking over that discussion, it strikes me that the question is whether Microsoft, or any dominant producer, has a self-interest in interoperability, and what that might be.

An Example of Community Self-Interest

In my work with the Open Document Management API (ODMA), it became clear why small producers of niche products would build ODMA-compliant products.  Support for ODMA helped to legitimize the entry of little-known suppliers into the document-management marketplace.  By supporting ODMA, a niche document-management vendor provided more credibility in their claims to support integration with well-known office applications, especially Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and others.  It has been interesting to observe that over the past dozen years as new products arose in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

I believe that ODMA-using organizations are also reassured that they can manage and, if necessary, substitute ODMA-supporting document-management packages and desktop software.  The self-interest on the part of adopters, whether or not they have much market voice, is fairly clear. 

Finally, there was a clear self-interest on the part of the original contributors to the ODMA specification and its connection-manager software.  The arrangement satisfied a need they all had and that none of them found profitable to address independently.  The producers of smaller document-management systems and interested suppliers of desktop software were comfortable enough to contribute to a community-developed and -owned solution.  (Later on, ownership of support turned up missing, however.)

I think it is clear how interoperability with existing specifications can be important for new entrants in what may be a specialized market niche.  Similar experiences have accompanied the adherence to TWAIN for integration of scanners and cameras, and ODBC (and its descendants) for integration with structured-data sources.  There is a similar history and appeal for WebDAV, in many ways a more-substantial alternative to the arrangements supported by ODMA.

What is the Self-Interest of Dominant Players?

Although Microsoft was not a visible participant in ODMA development, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint (starting with Office 97 and at one point including the Office Binder) continue to support ODMA.  Compatibility with these programs is an important benchmark for all ODMA-compliant document-management-system integrations.  To the best of my knowledge, no Microsoft server product (e.g., SharePoint or Exchange server) has an ODMA integration.  I find it intriguing that Microsoft participated in this arms-length way; I have to remind myself that the competition on the desktop was rather different in 1996. 

I believe that dominant players can have a self-interest in supporting interoperability arrangements.  I don't think that competition law accounts for all of it.  I also believe that dominant players can find a self-interest in initiating interoperability arrangements, whether or not based on licensing agreements.

Here's the question I want to throw open:

What are self-interests that a dominant industry player might have in offering and supporting interoperability arrangements?

Speculations?

How about for customers?  Is the self-interest in interoperability that clear?

 
Comments:
 
Customers, Customers, Customers.
That's why Microsoft builds in interop, and it's also why the 50-person startup I joined in 1992 pursued Interop. It's the same whether the company is big or small. The reason to build interop is to answer the needs or demands of customers.
 
 
Thanks Dino, that's a good'un.

Now, for the bonus question, what is the self-interest in pro-actively pursuing interoperability as a design principle and guidance?
 
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