Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Open Interfaces Needed

Customers demand choice, choice drives competition, and competition drives innovation and lowered cost. That's a Free Market Economy, right?

Well, no economic or political system is completely pure. Take my iPod for example. iPod's are small, pretty, and surprisingly reliable from a software perspective. But once you buy one, you're locked into "accessory monopoly." Not an Apple accessory monopoly exactly, but a monopoly on the iPod hardware interface itself. I have an Alpine iPod deck with a digital interface in my car, an Onkyo iPod dock on my home stereo, and a couple of iPod chargers. All of these plug into the digital interface on the bottom of the iPod. The interface is nice. It provides digital extraction of MP3 files so that decoding can be done by external A/V equipment. It provides high-quality line-level output for an external analog interface. It provides the ability to extract the music list for external display (on my TV or my Alpine's screen). It's also proprietary.

Here's the thing. Someday I'll have to replace my iPod, either because the battery won't hold a charge, or it runs out of capacity, or some crazy lady decides to smash it with a hammer. When that time comes, I'd like to evaluate the MP3 combo player/phone/camera/e-book/blender/tazer options on the market and pick the one that fits my needs. If Apple hasn't kept up with the competitors, then suddenly all of this iPod accessory stuff goes on eBay. That's just wrong!

Perhaps, but that's called vendor lock-in. It seems anti-capitalist, because I could be stuck with something technically inferior, sort of like Vista on my Dell. Yet, any company in their right mind wants to drive towards vendor lock-in because it's a guaranteed revenue stream. Call me an idealist, but wouldn't vendor loyalty based on product superiority and interoperability be a better approach?

The iPod hardware interface isn't a differentiator. Sure it's a royalty stream for Apple, but it's not a technical differentiator. API's in Eclipse aren't really technical differentiators either, and they certainly aren't proprietary. Eclipse has focused on vendor loyalty, not vendor lock-in.

Interfaces on commodity hardware and software should be open. Let customers pick the winners!

Tags: iPod, Alpine, Onkyo, Vista, Dell, Eclipse


At 10:23 AM, Blogger Scott Lewis said...

Nice post Doug. I think you've also stated a great reason for the ECF project...whose main reason for existing is to provide interoperability in Eclipse-based communications/messaging/collaboration. I guess I should blog similarly about "Open Protocols Needed" as well. Perhaps I'll do this soon. Thanks.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Ed Merks said...

Excellent post. I like the analogy. It's a good one. The image of a crazy lady run amok is particularly thought provoking.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Michael Scharf said...

Well, but the vendor locks-in (I call them vendor traps) work quite well as revenue stream: My Canon Printer died. So, I bought a new HP printer (cheaper printing costs). But my wife has created about 100 cd labels with the software that came with the old canon printer -- guess what: the software refuses to print on non-canon printers: I sold the HP (with a 30 euro loss on ebay) and bought a new canon...

...and there is an eclipse vendor lock-in: once you have set up your plugins and you build process etc in eclipse, it is hard to migrate to another platform.

Or even worse: you wrote your UI in SWT or created a RCP -- a real vendor lock-in.

Sure, customers want choice. But even more, they want to know what kind of dependency they get when they make a decision.

And with your iPod decision you depend on the apple hardware interfaces, but there is a big market supporting that interface. There are no 3rd party add ons for no-name cheap mp3 player...

And even if you support standards and open interfaces, there could be unexpected surprises: I got a new Nokia cell phone. It can be used as USB drive (standard USB cable). The power adapter is 5V, so I expected I can charge the phone using the adapter -- but no. You have to buy a 30 Euro cable that has on one end a usb plug and at the other their private power plug....

Similarly, eclipse is a great development environment, but some limitations are very surprising: eclipse does not support nested projects (the highly voted bug 35973)

Interfaces and openess are great, but decisions (by nature) limit your choices -- that's why I hate to make decisions ;-)


At 11:16 AM, Blogger Doug Gaff said...

Yes, I mentioned the revenue stream with iPod's hardware interface in the post. From what I understand, Apple licenses the interface to vendors that want to create compatible accessories. However, I can find no instance where a competing MP3 player mimics the interface. Perhaps it's been reverse engineered in China, though.

The irony of a free market economy is that many companies don't want any restrictions on competition, yet they also strive for monopoly, even if it isn't earned through proper competition.


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