Thursday, November 22, 2007

ict interoperability and einnovation

Here is a brief note on the release of a study on interoperability and einnovation, which gives an excellent analysis of all the pertinent issues and is a major contribution to this important (and in my opinion underresearched) topic. The study is a product of the colloborative work of the Berkman Center of Harvard Law School and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen with two key researchers involved - John Palfrey and Urs Gasser - whom I have the great pleasure to know and to have worked with.
The study comprises a White Paper and three case studies on ict interoperability and einnovation. The latter explore in turn digital rights management in online and offline music distribution models; digital identity systems; and web services.
The core finding is that increased levels of ict interoperability generally foster innovation. Interoperability contributes in addition to other socially desirable outcomes such as consumer choice, access to content and diversity.
As Urs points out the investigation reached other, more nuanced conclusions:
"Interoperability does not mean the same thing in every context and as such, is not always good for everyone all the time. For example, if one wants completely secure software, then that software should probably have limited interoperability. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all way to achieve interoperability in the ICT context.
Interoperability can be achieved by multiple means including the licensing of intellectual property, product design, collaboration with partners, development of standards and governmental intervention. The easiest way to make a product from one company work well with a product from another company, for instance, may be for the companies to cross license their technologies. But in a different situation, another approach (collaboration or open standards) may be more effective and efficient.
The best path to interoperability depends greatly upon context and which subsidiary goals matter most, such as prompting further innovation, providing consumer choice or ease of use, and the spurring of competition in the field.
The private sector generally should lead interoperability efforts. The public sector should stand by either to lend a supportive hand or to determine if its involvement is warranted".

Against the above backdrop, the White Paper proposes a set of guidelines to assist businesses and governments in determining the best way to achieve interoperability in a given situation:
(i) identify what the actual end goal or goals are. The goal is not interoperability per se, but rather something to which interoperability can lead, such as innovation or consumer choice.
(ii) consider the facts of the situation. The key variables that should be considered include time, maturity of the relevant technologies and markets and user practices and norms.
(iii) in light of these goals and facts of the situation, consider possible options against the benchmarks proposed by the study: effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility.
(iv) remain open to the possibility of one or more approaches to interoperability, which may also be combined with one another to accomplish interoperability that drives innovation.
(v) in some instances, it may be possible to convene all relevant stakeholders to participate in a collaborative, open standards process. In other instances, the relevant facts may suggest that a single firm can drive innovation by offering to others the chance to collaborate through an open API, such as Facebook’s recent success in permitting third-party applications to run on its platform. But long-term sustainability may be an issue where a single firm makes an open API available according to a contract that it can change at any time.
(vi) In the vast majority of cases, the private sector can and does accomplish a high level of interoperability on its own. The state may help by playing a convening role, or even in mandating a standard on which there is widespread agreement within industry after a collaborative process. The state may need to play a role after the fact to ensure that market actors do not abuse their positions.

I consider the above guidelines succintly formulated and especially valuable for further research efforts in the field of interoperability and innovation. I am honoured to have been part of the discussions on these issues during the first interoperabilty workshop convened by Urs in Weissbad, Switzerland.