2010. március 2., kedd

There are political advantages in vendor lock-in

Today Matt Asay urges government buyers to support open source, open data and open standards. Why? Because it’s better. Because it promotes competition. Because it gives government flexibility. But after watching government on every level, in various countries, for over half my lifetime, I can tell you the last thing any government wants is to make a decision its successor can overturn.

Every government knows its time in office is limited. What it needs are stalwart friends and a legacy. Proprietary vendors deliver both, and it is in the nature of open source that these not be provided.

You’re probably thinking this is an attack on American politicians, so let’s go offshore for our example. Let’s go instead to Great Britain and, to make it a little less partisan, to the BBC. (This might be useful to Matt since he’s now COO of a British-based company, Canonical.)

(Cue the flashback effects, please.)

About 15 years ago now, when I was at Interactive Age, the BBC asked us to send someone over to Radio House for a two-day conference on what it should do with “multimedia.”

The plan was for our publisher to give a little speech, but then the magazine was closed, most everyone left for pastures new, and this junior reporter was left with the duty.

I gave a little talk but, having nothing better to do, stayed for the whole show. Near the end the audience was broken into working groups on various topics. Mine was on the Internet.

While everyone around me argued, I noodled around on a connected PC and found an early NPR podcast of its headlines. I turned around, got their attention, started playing the file, and told them “this is your competition.”

Over the years the Beeb became an online leader. Its online budget grew. But pushback emerged from private news sources. They said the Beeb’s dominance was hurting their business prospects.

The response was to try and tie the BBC’s existing strengths in broadcasting tightly to its Web site. Politically the idea was to make them one and the same. The BBC needed a friend here, and it found one in Microsoft.
Microsoft was willing to do whatever the BBC wanted, support whatever draconian DRM regime was called for, in exchange for proprietary advantage. Its iPlayer gave the agency control over who could see what, reducing the inherent subsidy in Americans visiting the BBC News Web site.

One result is that the BBC is now locking out open source, verifying “rights” to view content by verifying the player. They have gone so far down the proprietary road that the interests of specific American companies — Microsoft and Adobe — are now the interests of the BBC.

It’s crazy if you think about it. Tieing British citizens to American technology companies, when there is solid British-based competition from Matt and his bosses, right there in London.

But open source could not have enforced rules on users as the proprietary companies could. Open source could not have the politicians’ backs as Microsoft might.

And open source could not have obligated the next government, which may be much less friendly to the BBC’s interests, to support BBC technology, lock-in and user control the way a proprietary solution does.
Lock-in is not a bug but a feature. In any political setting — and even a private company boardroom is a political setting — that can be a real advantage. It’s something open source can’t match (thank goodness) but there it is.

Dana Blankenhorn 
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