The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula


Today an interesting ruling came from the European Union regarding Microsoft, Vista, and the distribution of services (like a media player, or a search engine) as integrated operating system technology. The EU courts ruled against Microsoft in its appeal of a previous ruling that its Vista technology creates an unfair monopoly by bundling key software in the OS, while shutting out competition by keeping secret the important interface for that technology into the OS. It’s a bit like telling somebody that they are free to build a TV for a proprietary cable system, but refusing to provide the specifications for the connector linking the TV to the cable signal. You’re basically telling people that it’s OK to make TVs, but only the cable company’s TVs will know how to actually display the signal.

One of the criticisms of this ruling that I heard on the radio tonight was that this ruling will squelch innovation in the software market. By having to disclose the Vista technology that makes seamless the connection between the OS and media playing, they argue that other companies that perfect that process will also have to give up their secrets, degrading the incentive to innovate that connection.

I guess I’m pretty biased, coming from the open-source community. I see the interface as the **enabler** of innovation. Once documented, the interface allows the creative programmer the freedom to develop software that best uses it to deliver music and video to the viewer, through the complex pathways of the operating system. While the interface itself might be a marvel of design, it’s the user’s experience connecting to the material where so much innovation is needed. How best do you layout the player, to make it intuitive and adaptive? How best to aggregate the user’s media, to organize it in a way that personalizes the experience for the user? How do you integrate user feedback into improving the product?

Wasting time reinventing the interface is only useful if you know you can do it better, or that it needs to be done better. If not, and if all you care about is delivering that experience to the user through the interface, then how is innovation threatened? The operating system should be a form of creativity, but in dissuading others from using it to express their creativity through software, what is the purpose of the OS? Is it to lock us all into the groupthink of Microsoft? Now that’s a great way to crush innovation.