It’s time for another article for my Dark Side of New Technology series. This one appears to have become a quite an energetic discussion topic among futurists and software pundits on the internet. This may be possibly because it relates directly to both monopoly enforcement and net neutrality. Today we’ll be talking about closed software ecosystems and the proposed solution of adversarial interoperability.
What is a Closed Software Ecosystem, and What Does it Have to Do with Jewellery CAD?
Before I get too far into this, perhaps it would be helpful if I explained some of these terms. A closed ecosystem refers to a piece of software or website where you can add information or create files, but taking that information out or moving it to another program or website has been made intentionally difficult. This could be caused by developers simply not bothering to create functional exporting commands. Or perhaps the developers hold a naive and optimistic belief that they can design all the tools customers will ever need in their particular discipline, and they work hard to integrate these suites of software to work together easily. Far more often, however, it seems to be an intentional design feature, created for the purposes of DRM (digital rights management).
Examples of this are not difficult to find, although companies do seem to go through phases of protectionism. For example, in the early 00’s Microsoft Office made it very hard indeed for their old competitor WordPerfect to open their .doc files, serving as one of the final nails in the coffin for WordPerfect’s market share.
Another example is readily visible in several jewellery CAD programs: when import and export tools are problematic or not effectively designed, it blocks users taking files to and from their software. This can dissuade users from using their software at all. After all, if you have a large library of old models which you may need to rework, switching CAD programs is hard.
What is the Problem Then?
There are two problems with closed software ecosystems.
The first problem is that closed software ecosystems go against the logic of free markets and innovation.
When there is too little competition in a market, closed ecosystems are a disadvantage not only to customers, but also to the business itself. Since Stuller/Gemvision bought out RhinoGold a few years ago, and other competitors have kind of melted away for various reasons, there have effectively only really been three major jewellery CAD software packages left active on the market.
When Stuller/Gemvision decided to charge loyal existing users thousands of dollars in upgrade fees for a product that by their own admission is not as fully functional as their previous software release, this should have resulted in a large number of users leaving Matrix for other software like 3Design. But, perhaps since 3Design’s ability to import and export .3dm files wasn’t fully ready for the task, this hasn’t yet happened as of this article’s writing.
The second issue is that no company is smart enough to know everything about their users. Nobody can reliably predict all the tools their users would want to use. Inevitably, some users will want to do something exotic with the software which the developer couldn’t have predicted. In cases like this, there is no way a closed ecosystem would not hurt both their users and the software’s usability.
So, if a user cannot get what they want from their software, it’s in the best interest of both the users and the software company to allow users to take their data out for use elsewhere, right? Well, not every company feels that way.
Stuck in an Ecosystem
Take Apple Music and iTunes, for example. Over the past decade, they have been quietly removing features which allowed you to manage files as .mp3 file format, and have been introducing the DRM-locked .m4a format, which not only can only be played in iTunes, it can only be played on the few selected machines you’ve specifically authorised. Even copying these files for backups is problematic, unless you use Apple’s own proprietary iCloud backup system, of course…
With websites, this problem is even more insidious. Facebook, Quora, and similar sites do everything in their power to gather as much data from you as possible. However, deleting your data is either difficult or nearly impossible, and exporting it out is a slow and intentionally painful process.
What futurists seem to be really worried about here is that because we build up files which can only be used or accessed in literally one place, we become entirely at the mercy of software and websites that use them. If they go out of business, make a technical mistake with their storage software, or simply make an executive decision, customers lose their purchases and data. Customers cannot leave, no matter how poorly they treat their customers, or how much they decide to charge them.
Renewing an Old Solution – Adversarial Interoperability
One solution that a few technology pundits and computer industry legal experts have been discussing is Adversarial Interoperability. This refers to the legality of allowing one software package or website to open and use a competitor’s file formats. It’s very close to the idea of universal file standards (like we see with most of the internet), and is a natural enemy of DRM.
I’ve been discussing issues with file conversion in jewellery CAD for many years now, criticising several companies for their bad habits in making it difficult to convert from one file format to another, and how this blocks CAD software companies from becoming more popular design tools.
In the earliest days of the Internet, most file formats were designed to be universal because sharing files between machines was a relatively new innovation. Developers found it advantageous to use their own proprietary file formats as they could control the features. Making the files hard for others to open was seldom a priority, and more just a by-product of laziness. If a file format became popular enough in its use, copycat software appeared which was able to read and open these files. This ability of external software packages to be able to work on your files is the essence of adversarial interoperability, and this was how what we now consider to be industry standard file formats were chosen. Nowadays, however, proprietary file formats are becoming a feature of some of the largest software companies.
When social media first began, there was a concession to exporting data in some of the earliest blog tools (like Livejournal). However, over time those started to disappear as well, in favour of one-way interfaces where content is added but never fully removed.
By leaving file formats open and free, it encourages competition and gives independent developers not only market access, but the chance to raise the bar of all software in that area. Cory Doctorow’s case study of IBM PC compatibles during the 1980s shows just how big a role adversarial interoperability played in the PCs achieving market dominance.
According to the EFF’s own article on the subject, our future freedom of choice depends on bringing back the ability to export and transfer files between not only software packages, but websites. Given how much of our lives is now dedicated to creating and purchasing digital content (in the form of social media posts, ebooks, software, personal photos, etc.), having it locked away in a place only accessible by one business seems just too big of a risk.
If you’d like to know more, Cory Doctorow’s series of articles for Boing Boing and EFF have been excellent.