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WHEN I send an e-mail from my PC to someone using an iMac, or when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, we both counted on interoperability, interop, for short. If I reach for my iPhone charger to refresh my Sony X-505 laptop, I’m about to experience a failure of interop; probably fortunately, the plug won’t even fit.
There’s a new book on this topic reviewed in the 21 September 2012 issue of Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s Interop The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Basic Books (Perseus), 2012. Its Science review by Laura DeNardis is excellent reading.
It’s noted that as our societal linkages proliferate, interoperability becomes more crucial. However, “this growing level of interconnectedness comes at an increasingly higher price.”
Particularly important are matters of privacy and security. Facebook’s Beacon (2007-2009) provided an example. With Beacon, a purchase made online from a Facebook-connected partner would automatically appear on the Facebook user’s personal page. A “Keeping up with the Jones’s” display? The authors call it “interoperability gone awry.”
Another example was the hacking of Sony’s PlayStation network that potentially revealed personal account information. As the reviewer notes, interop doesn’t cause these privacy and security concerns, but it is clearly an enabling factor.
Another aspect concerns a company’s proprietary technology that purposely trades away interop (electronic gadget charging, for example). The rest of us wouldn’t mind some commonality in such hardware, provided it didn’t affect efficiency.
However, that’s a big “provided.” Interop can’t help but clash with innovation.
As an example, for years America’s standard sealed-beam headlights precluded adoption of more advanced—and genuinely better—lighting offered in Europe.
Today, we have traded standardization, albeit with increased cost, for improved performance.
Another interesting example is our QWERTY keyboard, a layout dating from the era of Charles Dickens.
The QWERTY logic was to separate the letters most likely used in succession; this; to prevent adjacent keys of the typewriter from jamming. This particular logic has little validity today, but proposed “better” layouts haven’t gained much support.
Plenty of trends indicate that interops will increase. Societal benefits of EMedicine, for example, are potentially huge, with life-saving exchange of patient information. Other borderless endeavors such as cloud computing and smart electrical grids depend on higher levels of interops, with both “promise and perils.” The authors make an excellent point in this regard: We should search for the optimal—not necessarily the maximal—level of interoperability. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012