March 24, 2011
When consumers, producers, or service providers can make two or more devices, systems, or networks work together, the systems are said to be “interoperable.” Interoperability issues often arise when systems offered by different firms are deployed simultaneously, or when both old and new versions of a product from the same firm are deployed. The term is often used in discussing hardware like telephones or medical devices, software, and computer records, but issues relating to interoperability also arise in traditional sectors, such as railroads. Some systems are interoperable by design or even government mandate. These can be built using “open standards” that describe how different products can be made to work together; the standards are “open” in being available for use by any appropriate technology developer. The Internet itself is such a system, supported by the Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) standards, usually shortened to TCP/IP. Other systems become de facto interoperable as various economic actors independently decide to use compatible technologies or a single technology, like Microsoft Word. Some products are designed to usually disallow interoperability without permission, like Apple’s iPhone.
These issues arise in discussions of interoperability:
TAP Academics researching interoperability include:
- The role of government in encouraging or mandating interoperability.
- How interoperability or a lack thereof affects competition between firms.
- Problems with competition arising when one firm with substantial market power controls technology needed to support interoperability.
- The time it takes to achieve interoperability, as individual firms often innovate more quickly than standards organizations.
- The costs of interoperability (including increased time to market) as compared to the benefits of interoperability (such as an increase in the ease with which consumers can use a product).
- How technologies for protecting copyrighted works, often called “digital rights management,” affect interoperability.
- The role of patented or copyrighted technologies and licensing in achieving interoperability.
- The contribution of interoperability to innovation and economic growth.
- The interoperability of government systems and public safety technologies.
- Problems consumers face if they are “locked in” to a system that is not interoperable.
- Security and privacy problems related to interoperability.
of Stern School of Business of New York University examines the links between interoperability and competition.
of Tel Aviv University looks at how consumers adopt technology, as well as issues involving standard-setting.
of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University looks at the relationship between interoperability and innovation.
of Harvard Business School examines interoperability issues as they relate to competition between software platforms.
of Harvard Law School writes about interoperability and innovation.
of Tulane University writes about interoperability, innovation, and competition.
of Boalt Hall and UC Berkeley's School of Information writes about intellectual property law and interoperability.
“[I]t may be difficult to bring about more interoperability by mandating greater disclosure of interface information or regulating what kinds of changes firms can make to their interfaces.” From her article
“Are Patents on Interfaces Impeding Interoperability?
,” Minnesota Law Review, Volume 93, 2009
“When a market is young and first-time users are affiliating with platforms in large numbers, a dominant platform is likely to avoid interoperating with smaller rivals. Once platforms are established and user acquisition rates slow, however, it may make sense for rivals to reconsider compatibility policies—especially if their market shares approach parity.” From his article with co-authors Thomas Esenmann and Geoffrey Parker,
“Opening Platforms: How, When and Why?
,” Platforms, Markets and Innovation, Annabelle Gawer, ed., Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK, 2008
These sources are a good place to start in understanding interoperability issues. Pamela Samuelson and Suzanne Scotchmer’s paper “The Law and Economics of Reverse Engineering
” looks at the legal issues raised by one firm’s efforts to study another firm’s product to figure out how it works. Urs Gasser and John Palfrey consider the relationship between innovation and interoperability in “Breaking Down Digital Barriers: When and How ICT Interoperability Drives Innovation
.” Alexei Alexandrov explores some advantages and disadvantages of interoperability in “Interconnecting Differentiated Networks
.” Ramon Casadesus-Masanell and Francisco Ruiz-Aliseda’s paper “Platform Competition, Compatibility, and Social Efficiency
” asks why technology products like Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s iTunes tend not to be interoperable. Thomas Hazlett looks at the impact on consumers of legal rules that require technology to be interoperable in “Modular Confines of Mobile Networks: Are iPhones iPhony?
” Thomas R. Eisenmann, Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne explore why some platforms encourage interoperability and others do not in “Opening Platforms: How, When and Why?
” Jonathan Zittrain’s blog “The Internet’s Fort Knox Problem
” discusses security issues related to interoperability.
The FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council's released its final report
relating to the interoperability of emergency and public safety communications in December of 2010. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology continued work on standards enabling the growth of interoperable national health information networks
throughout 2010. In December of 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
, a groups of scientists and engineers appointed by the President, released its “Report to the President Realizing the Full Potential of Health Information Technology to Improve Healthcare for Americans: The Path Forward,” addressing key issues such as interoperability of health care technology. In January of 2011, sixteen operators of WiMAX systems from around the world to work on agreements that would enable consumers to use their WiMAX-enabled devices anywhere in the world, known as “global roaming,” described by Wireless Week
and the China Post
. Also in January of 2011, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010
was passed; the law includes provisions expanding the role of the National Institute of Standards and Technology
to work with the private sector in standards to support cloud computing, emergency communications, and other key technologies.
- H.R. 5694, the One Global Internet Act of 2010, was introduced in July of 2010 to encourage international technical standards for Internet traffic.
- H.R. 174, the Homeland Security Cyber and Physical Infrastructure Protection Act of 2011, includes measures to improve the security of communications against attacks, including provisions relating to standards.
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