Open and interoperable are two words in the Information Technology world susceptible to misunderstanding at best, at worst to self-serving abuse. It is important to clarify their accepted meanings, because how they are understood in the market has direct practical consequences for consumers, vendors and regulatory authorities.

  • ECIS members endorse a clear set of conditions for the use of the word open when applied to the technical standards necessary to ensure interoperability between different digital systems and services.
  • But for complete understanding, a commonly accepted meaning for the word interoperability itself – as distinct from what should be called intraoperability – is also necessary.

True interoperability means connectivity based on truly open standards that – by definition – do not favour any one software provider.

  • Under conditions of true interoperability, any two pieces of software a consumer selects are guaranteed to work together as well as any two others. One of the providers might well have a superior market position, but this reflects only consumer preference, not control over the conditions of connectivity.

  • In markets characterized by true interoperability, software succeeds because the application or service is faster, more reliable, more secure, more scalable, has a better user interface, and more generally provides a better quality of service. It does not succeed just because it has better connectivity with a dominant system, or vice versa.

What is not interoperability?

  • Interoperability does not fairly and accurately describe for market participants the case where a single vendor or software provider makes it easier to connect primarily to his or her software. This is more properly called intraoperability.

  • In the intraoperability situation, one product is effectively central and dominant, either by market share, attitude, or acquiescence. Connectivity favours the central software, typically through standards prescribed and controlled by the provider which do not meet the definition of open as set by neutral organizations such as IDABC (European Union’s programme for Interoperable Delivery of European eGovernment Services to public Administrations, Businesses and Citizens).
  • It may of course be in the immediate economic interest of other vendors to accept the terms and conditions for connectivity imposed by the central provider, but they do so with the tacit agreement that they are agreeing to play in an asymmetric, intraoperable environment where the primary advantages go to the one in the center.
  • Be that as it may, such intraoperability cannot be in the interest of consumers and users, who often find their choices effectively limited to products of vendors who have chosen to play this game, and inevitably pay higher prices for the protected products of the central vendor.

The spread of true interoperability in IT markets, based on truly open standards, ultimately depends on market demand. A clear understanding of what both words mean – and don’t mean – is the place to start.

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