Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who's "Platform of the World?"

Matt Asay decided to use his post to The Open Road on the CNET Blog Network to vent over the prospect of Microsoft and Google engaging in a "Battle of the Titans for who becomes the platform of the world" (taking that text from an interview given by Microsoft Regional Vice President John Mangelaars to CIO magazine). Here is the basic argument of his vent:

My question? Do we really want either company filling that role? Microsoft monopolizing the desktop did no one any favors, and Microsoft or Google monopolizing the Web won't be any better.

It's not a question of who is or isn't evil. It's about the dangers inherent in centralizing control in any one entity.

The problem, unfortunately, is that few people or organizations think about this when making IT decisions. However much the open-source community talks up its ability to reduce or eliminate vendor lock-in, the reality is that consumers and enterprises choose technology based on near-term utility, not long-term choice.

I certainly sympathize with his fear of "the dangers inherent in centralizing control in any one entity;" but I fear that his view of "reality" only gets at part of the story. There is nothing wrong with seeking near-term utility. Most of the time it is less a matter of instant gratification and more an issue of achieving a particular goal within some time constraint.

The real problem is that we tend to assume a fairly high level of stability in the choices we make for providers of goods and services. This presumption of stability has now gone out the window along with the buggy whip. Most of us probably first realized this in dealing with banks. The first mortgage I held was with a real-live neighborhood bank. The bank itself was actually within a fifteen-minute walk of the condominium I was purchasing. Along every step of the way, I had face-to-face encounters over what the bank could do for me and how I could convince the bank that I would be a good customer. In all probability, that bank no longer exists. The building may still be there; but in all likelihood it houses a branch of one of those mega-banks. If you now meet with anyone face-to-face, then the person you encounter is simply a conduit to a larger system; and neither of you know very much about how that system actually works. When I took out my mortgage, I assumed that the bank would be there at least for as long as I was living in that city, if not longer. Today, whether it is a matter of financing my condominium or just paying the bills, I can no longer make that assumption.

My guess is that this is one of those unintended consequences of that great motto of technology evangelists: "The Internet changes everything!" It turns out that one of the most important changes is that just about everything (or at least just about any provider of goods or services) has become highly volatile; and that is why near-term utility can no longer be projected into long-term planning. Unfortunately, with regard to the specific case that Asay is trying to make, the open-source community is just as volatile as any other provider, if not more so. You may have more freedom of choice in how your software does what it does; but everyone else in your open-source community is exercising that same freedom. It is one thing to manage your own backyard and quite another when you need to extend your backyard resources. It is easy enough to find new stuff. It may not be so easy to get the new stuff to play well with the old stuff.

Ultimately, it does not matter whether you hitch your wagon to a large enterprise or an open-source community. Both are volatile, and you are bound to get bitten by some of the changes one way or another. In such a setting it is a wonder that anyone ever gets anything done. Oh, wait …

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