Dave Winer and lock-in

It really is worth having a look at Dave Winer’s comments on lockin in the tech sector at the moment. You can read his piece here.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was studying terminology at college – this was on a language related course – one of the points that came up for discussion was standardisation of terminology, particularly relevant in new fields of technology where translation of terminology was concerned.

We need standards in general terms. Our networks would not hang together if there were not communications and networks standards. If you’ve spent any time on messaging software at all, you know that to get disparate providers to communicate, you need standards of some kind. A lot of work has gone into technical standards over the years; my idea of fun would not involve writing standards for TCP/IP but someone had to do it. Hopefully it was their idea of fun.

Lockin is one of those things you do when you want to be massively controlling about your product. Apple has done it with chargers, for example, which enables them to do a certain amount of planned obsolescence and also, to control their market. It may not, however, be a long term option.

We’ll see what happens. The long term is a bitch, and it has a tendency to plow under get-rich-quick schemes and I know you think it’s idealistic but evolution only builds on open formats and protocols. That’s how technology layers. It’s true some patents hold, and some lock-in gets built on. Look at PDF for example. But there’s a reason HTML took us places PDF never could. The ability of anyone to do anything they wanted to, without having their API key revoked. That’s a big enabler of creativity, to use terminology VCs understand.

The thing is, the tech industry has gone a long way in directions which didn’t exist even 15 years ago. There are very few days on which I don’t read some account of a software patent case, for example. There’s an element of controllery going on in some sectors which focuses more, I think, on financial outcome in the short term rather than the long term and rather on technology impact.

What fascinates me is that for all that, there continues to be pushback against complete control. If you want to learn to program these days, you have several options which don’t rely on you getting an expensive compiler, for example. If you really want to fiddle around with technology, Arduino and Raspberry Pi provide a few open doors. There are services which act as enablers – let’s face it, when I was 25 years old, AWS just didn’t exist. Access to Linux has probably opened up development opportunity to a lot of people as well.

I think ultimately, a lot comes down to a balance of identifying our end objective. Dave is absolutely right to point out that in principle, we move further on open protocols and formats than on closed formats. One of the things which really, really frustrates me these days is that we have so many messaging applications all of which depend on not being interoperable.