Interoperability

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

Opening with the Bell system, UK’s beer tie practice, and cable TV systems as the examples, Seth went on to discuss the cultural issue of interoperability and the risks that all of us face when it’s not there.

Many today’s strong-arm business practices would not happen if it were not for the fact that the government is not perfect. And one reason that government being less effective is that lobbying works. Over time, larger players establish a scale, the scale that comes from forbidding others to join in. Established competitors further use the government as a cudgel to help them insulate themselves from innovation.

Before the World Wide Web had caught on, AOL used to rule the Internet. Things became very different when anyone who wants to can build a World Wide Web site on the Internet could do that with a set of APIs. One of the things that undermined CompuServe and Prodigy was the fact that email was interoperable.

In an open system environment, anyone who can match the API, the system of rules, can work with other systems. With email and the World Wide Web, proprietary carriage did not matter so much because someone could build a website without the carriage owner’s permission.

What established players want to do is to control distribution, control technology, control user access, control labor who can touch the system, and control government regulation to keep innovators from coming along.

This battle is never-ending because what consumers want is the ability for innovators to plug into existing systems. They want someone with innovation to be able to make a widget that they can plug into the system without the industry that makes the system deciding whether that is okay.

As citizens, we first must be ever vigilant about maintaining API’s open access. We need to weigh the ability of someone with a new idea or something new to plug into the existing systems vs. the people who run those systems and want to keep them closed.

Secondly, we, as entrepreneurs or small business people, need to be aware that we, too, have the same instincts to close the system and to limit the API’s input and output. Establishing limits feels like we have more control.

Out there somewhere is somebody who might not have the patience and the resource to get over the hurdle that a monopolist does not want them to get over. And our job as people who want to change the culture for the better is to help that person be found, help them find us and help them change things for the better.

By meeting the common standards, we can get to play, and the ability to play brings diversity to the table. The diversity of the population, diversity of ideas, and diversity of outcomes leads to connection and forward motion.

Every healthy community, infrastructure, economy is based on the innovation that comes when the play happens. When people and institutions interact, new ideas can show up in a way that makes things better. “You can’t say you can’t play” is a great way to make things better.