Friday, February 4, 2011

Avoiding Vendor Lock-Ins

Apple had one of the most successful TV commercials of 1984, reminiscent of Orwell’s novel, “1984”. In it, Apple reacted to IBM’s explosive PC success by depicting IBM as “Big Brother” and Apple as the champion of freedom-seeking consumers.

In many ways this commercial was extremely ironic, for it was IBM who (naively as it turns out) introduced its PC architecture with off-the-shelf components, making it one of the first open platforms on the market; whereas Apple was, and continues to be, a fanatical proponent of their own proprietary, closed architectures.

Now, we mustn't fault Apple for this. After all, its strategy to control its architecture and application interfaces as well as with its application marketplace has benefited it handsomely (Apple was recently credited for being the second most valuable company in the world!).

The truth is that, from its inception, the information systems industry has undergone cycles of alternating dominance between proprietary and standardized technologies. It’s practically a law of nature that, as soon as a new technology emerges, you find vendors rushing to compete by providing unique, value-add approaches that usually fail to inter-operate with other vendor platforms; thus seeking to lock you in to their particular product offerings.

This tug of war between closed and open systems has occurred at nearly every level of the computer stack, beginning with hardware designs, operating systems (MVS vs UNIX/Linux), languages (PL/1 vs C), and networking technologies (IBM’s SNA or the now-defunct DEC pushing Decnet, as examples), up to the more recent middleware, content and presentation standards.

The inclination of vendors to capture markets via their own technologies is understandable, but standardization has actually benefitted vendors by ultimately expanding the reach and penetration of potential markets. Standardization usually won out in the past but, on occasion, it failed to materialize, resulting in the loss of market opportunities. For example, a few years ago Instant messenger was poised to take over as a communications channel. However, AOL’s refusal to open its chat protocol to standards made IM interoperability both complex and impractical. While Email’s MIME standards allowed us to exchange emails regardless of the email software or ISP we happened to be using, chatting with someone with a Microsoft account from AOL was extremely difficult and usually required additional software. Instant Messaging failed to become as pervasive as email, proving that the refusal to adhere to standards can also kill a leading vendor’s hopes to profit from a given market.

Interestingly we are now entering a phase in which proprietary systems are beginning to gain an upper hand. Facebook has become a worldwide community but, in a way, it is also a gigantic walled-garden intranet—the type of environment that AOL once aspired to become. Indeed, it is disturbing to see companies now advertising their Facebook addresses rather than their Web site addresses. The kind of lock Facebook is acquiring may well be impossible to break other than through future legislation. At the very least one could expect regulations intended to protect the access and privacy of the users as well as clarification regarding ownership of intellectual property posted on these types of social sites (as of now, almost everything you post in Facebook, including your pictures, your art and your writings could be owned by them).

Apple, on the other hand, is successfully extending the concept of AppStore for all Mac applications; not only for its iPhones. If you have ever tried to place an iPhone application in its AppStore you know that the process is akin to trying to go through airport security dressed up as a mujahedin (pat downs, included!).
Microsoft is now realizing the huge opportunity it missed out on by failing to create an “MS AppStore” of its own, offering “certified” Microsoft based applications for a fee (it is now attempting to do so). In retrospect, Microsoft’s failure to monetize its brand and create a common marketplace for all Microsoft certified applications seems like a multi-billion dollar lost revenue opportunity--not that Mr. Gates is hurting, mind you. Thankfully, consumers benefitted from the breadth of MS-based product available in the open marketplace (alas, they also suffered some negative consequences in the form of viruses and sub-par products!).

From a technology perspective, IT has gradually moved up the stack in the cycle of technology commoditization. The new standardization frontier (battleground, some would call it) is at the layer dealing with presentation, application flows, and content. I have no doubt that technology will soon make those layers also amenable to standards, but the kind of lock-ins that we will face in the future will be mostly commercial. In other words, “Lock-In 2.0”. The AppStore concept is an example of the commercially based lock-in that’s sure to receive further traction in the near future. This type of lock-in has the potential to be even more fastidious if the Telecomm-sponsored proposals against Net neutrality succeed.

Other than through the unlikely case of government regulation, the only real possible escape from heightened dependence to the likes of Facebook or Twitter is the eventual emergence of open source alternatives—something akin to Wikipedia. But the most likely outcome is that the next standardization push will take place within the confines of such environments. Let’s face it; right now it’s hard to envision an “open source” alternative to Facebook that will have the reach of users and content that that space currently enjoys.

Still, there are things you can do to preserve some modicum of leverage on behalf of your company. When it comes to technology lock-in, you can be certain that using SOA is the best antidote against dependence upon a proprietary vendor platform. However, large vendors are quickly coming to realize the best chance they have of locking in a particular customer segment (i.e. You) is via the use of marketing restrictions (i.e. Commercial Lock-In). You’ll need to place the focus on how best to protect your company against this. It’s not enough to make sure your team configures the system with the right interfaces; you should also take a deep look at your vendor contracts and the state of the industry in order to ensure that the small print in your purchase agreement does not prevent you from integrating alternative vendors or forces you to surrender your intellectual property rights.

When it comes to integration with sites such as Facebook or Twitter, do so in a loosely coupled manner (don’t forget to use services!) To the extent you can, don’t get too immersed in their technology choices. Build your business logic, content and data sets outside their specific development frameworks and hook to them via simple APIs (application programming interfaces) only . Finally, advise your marketing team to please advertise the company’s Web address and not its Facebook address! You can always place the Facebook, Yahoo or Twitter addresses as links within your web site.