The Importance of Interoperability

The Importance of Interoperability

Robbert Haarman



Most people who have worked with computers will be acquainted with Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. These are the applications and software suites that most offices use. These products, and many others, use closed (only known to the company making the software) formats for storage of documents, messages, etc. This makes it difficult for would-be competitors to write software which can handle documents created with said products. Closed formats are harmful to both the software industry and software users. The same is true of closed communication protocols. This essay presents some of the dangers of closed formats and protocols, and calls for action against them.

Disadvantages to Competitors

If a software firm does not reveal the specifics of the file formats or protocols their software uses, others will not know how to read or write files created by this software, or how to communicate with it. This makes it difficult for competitors to develop software that competes with the original. This makes it difficult to compete, because users are unwilling to abandon their software for even a superior alternative when this alternative cannot perfectly handle these users' existing files, or communicate with users of software that uses a different protocol. Thus, companies have to spend a lot of time and effort reverse-engineering the competition's file formats and protocols, instead of focusing on the actual features and quality of their product.

Practical experience shows that, once a software product becomes the dominant player in a certain market, competing products start being pushed out of the market. The authors of these products must work very hard to obtain and maintain compatibility with the leader, whereas the leader does not have to make the same effort to become or stay compatible with minor players. Thus, the market leader can spend effort on introducing new features, or even changing formats and protocols to thwart the competition.

Disadvantages to Users

Not only competing software firms suffer from closed formats and protocols. Users, too, suffer when proprietary becomes the norm. This is true for both users of the software that uses proprietary formats or protocols and for users of alternative software.

The case is clearest for users of alternative software. Sooner or later, they will be confronted with a document they can't properly open, because it is in a closed format that their software doesn't fully know how to handle. Asking the authors of said document to provide it in a more compatible format can be humiliating and is often met with incomprehension or even insult. Trying to communicate with another user or a service using a proprietary protocol is often not even possible using alternative software, so users will be forced to buy the proprietary solution or be excluded.

For users of software that uses closed formats or protocols, the case is more subtle. The problem manifests itself the moment they want to switch to a different product, because it offers superior quality, a lower price, or the original product is no longer supported. If the new software does not fully support the proprietary file format, part or all of the existing files may become inaccessible! At best, this makes switching a tedious and painful process, at worst, it makes it practically impossible. Switching to software that doesn't support an older communication protocol is out of the question, unless all communication partners and services switch at the same time, or both old and new software are used during a transition period. Neither option may be feasible in practice, and neither is very attractive.

Users also suffer from the indirect negative effect of stiffled competition. With companies creating software struggling to maintain compatibility, instead of focusing all their resources on the quality of the product in and of itself, users are left with products that are not as good and/or more expensive than would otherwise have been the case. Also, the dominant player can charge exorbitant prices for their software, secure in the knowledge that users will not abandon their existing investment.

The Current Situation

The disadvantages outlined in the previous sections are by no means hypothetical. The problems are very real and affect the majority of businesses and organizations that use computers. Considering office software gives a good handle on the scope of the problem.

The leading office suite today is Microsoft Office. In previous times, there was healthy competition from the likes of WordPerfect Office, Lotus, Framework, and ClarisWorks. Once Microsoft Office started to grow beyond the others, the competing suites quickly faded into obsolescence. These days, some competitors still exist, but it's unfeasible for all but fairly isolated groups to use them effectively, due to their less than perfect compatibility with Microsoft Office. Some competitors have worked hard to make their products compatible with Microsoft's, but Microsoft has changed the file formats that Office uses a few times, leading competitors to only support files created in older versions of Microsoft Office. In the meantime, Microsoft has implemented feature after feature, so that their Office Suite can now match and exceed the competition.

With the competition lagging behind, Microsoft has proceeded to charge increasingly large amounts of money for their Office suite. As long as most of the world keeps using it, it's hard for small groups or individuals to get by without it. Thus, users are virtually forced to pay whatever Microsoft charges for its software. And once you have paid the price and started using the software, you can't switch anymore, because you would lose access to your existing documents.

To illustrate the case for protocols, consider instant messaging. Instant messaging is a technology where you can send messages to friends or coworkers, which will instantly appear on their screen. That is, if they are using the same service you are using. There are currently five popular protocols that provide this functionality, each of them incompatible with the others.

Programs exist that implement multiple or all of these protocols, but, as a rule, the “official” client for a protocol provides certain extra features (such as support for voice and video transmission) that multi-protocol clients don't implement. It has taken people years to get these multi-protocol clients to the state they are now in; consider how long it will take to add support for all these extra features, which are often much more difficult to implement than simple text messaging. On top of that, the service providers keep changing their clients and protocols in an effort to lock out alternative implementations.

Imagine the situation for other services were the same as for instant messaging. You would only be able to browse the parts of the web that were accessible to your software. You would only be able to email people who were registered with the same service provider you were. Your phone would only be able to call people using the same phone company.

Call for Action

The problems of the current situation are clear, but so is the solution. Users have to start demanding open formats and protocols. This will enable interoperability, level the playing field for competition, and secure users' ability to communicate with others and access information both now in the future. Using alternative software, asking that documents be provided in an open format, and saving and providing documents in open formats raises public awareness, which is a first step.

There is a case to be made here for governmental organizations taking the lead here. These organizations have a responsibility to the citizens, and making themselves and the citizens dependent on a single company for access to information does not fit this responsibility. Since governmental bodies seem unwilling to take steps by themselves, perhaps citizens should raise this issue with the governmental bodies they interact with when appropriate.