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Open vs. Proprietary Systems: Interoperability

As I pondered what topic would be best to launch my participation in the Startel blog, I decided I would make the case for Open System Computing (OSC). While it is a large and complex topic, it is also a very important one. Why is OSC important? The succinct answer is because OSC, 1) encourages innovation, and 2) keeps cost down for consumers of technology – both corporate and end users. As it will inevitably take several blog posts to cover this extensive topic, I will attempt to break up the topic into more easily consumable bitesize pieces. Today’s post will focus on a small piece of OSC called Interoperability.

Open systems computing and the role of interoperability can be understood with the following example. Three months ago I bought a new Apple MacBook Pro, which cost nearly $4,000. About two weeks ago our Controller bought a new PC (Dell laptop) from Best Buy for $399 with Windows 8 and the latest Intel chip. Although these are “work” computers, why would I bring up what looks like a Business-to-Consumer (B2C) situation on a Business-to-Business (B2B) blog? To make this point: Why did my Mac laptop cost over 10x more than the Dell laptop? Sure, I got solid-state flash drives and 16 GB of memory while our Controller got 1GB of memory, but mine was 10x more in price? With her new Dell laptop she can add more memory – up to 16GB and it still would not make a dent in the price difference between her PC and my Mac. More to question is, why did I do it? Why did I pay 10x more? Well, I have been a Mac user for over 15 years; all my children and my wife use Macs and we have a Mac Network at home. I also like the look and feel, the ease of use, etc. But for the first time in 15 years I am questioning my decision to stick with Apple. After seeing Windows 8 functionality and testing Microsoft’s new Surface Pro (as Microsoft says, “a powerful PC in a tablet form”), I realize that the PC has better customization features. For instance, I cannot even upgrade RAM on a Mac. And the real kicker: Interoperability.

Interoperability is simply the ability of diverse systems to operate together – to work together. The term is usually used within the context of the corporate ecosystem. For instance, if your HP Printer works well with your IBM computer they have good hardware interoperability. If you have a particular application you like to use and it works well with your computer, it is said to have good software interoperability. PC’s often have better software interoperability than Apple computers, but why? The main reason is that the entire PC ecosystem was designed for interoperability. Often the software is from Microsoft, the processor from AMD or Intel, the computer from another 3rd party, etc. Apple’s ecosystem, on the other hand, is an example of a closed and proprietary model. Admittedly Apple has done well over the last few years (when Steve Jobs was there), hitting a market valuation that almost exceeded the combined market values of IBM, Google, and Microsoft. But at what cost to consumers? There are over 4 million desktop applications that run on Windows platforms, including QuickBooks and ACT!, two applications that we use at work but that I cannot access directly because I am on a Mac. The above Mac vs. PC analogy is just that – an analogy.

In the corporate world, vendors that sell closed and proprietary systems do so to lock customers into their platform in an unnatural way. Once locked in, it is painful and costly to break back out. In addition, while you are locked in the proprietary vendor often charges you more than you would ordinarily pay for upgrades and enhancements of features and functionality. Why is this the case? Because you have removed yourself from the OSC market where competition forces vendors to innovate and compete on price and value of the solution they offer. In addition, any new innovation that occurs on the outside may not be available to you, because you are using a proprietary system that does not interoperate well with the new innovation. Technology literally changes with the speed of light. No one vendor, no matter how large, can offer best-of-class applications in all areas of solutions that a corporation is seeking.

When evaluating any technology solution for an organization, it is best to choose a vendor that is committed to innovation and charges reasonable prices for their solutions and services. Don’t choose a vendor that locks you to a proprietary solution that is both expensive and may fall behind in innovation. Clearly any organization that wants to keep up on the innovation cycle of technology and wants to keep their budgets in line will look for vendors that offer a solution that includes interoperability of both software and hardware. Look for my next post, which will continue the discussion of Open System Computing and will discuss the topic of portability. 

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