Bruce Schneier is a reliable source of insight and expertise on the digital world. His recent piece for The Atlantic on proprietary standards is full of great examples of supplier lock-in. These are current examples, not old ones. Schneier is concerned that the promise of a hyper-connected, intelligent environment is being undermined by suppliers attempting to carve up separate spheres of interest.
He starts with an intelligent lighting system from Philips, which got a December 2015 software update that stopped it working with other manufacturers' lightbulbs – including bulbs which were previously supported. Consumer complaints brought a reversal of policy and Philips returned to compatibility with the industry's Zigbee standard.
Schneier explains how companies can use the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) to frustrate interoperability. In effect, consumers are losing out on potential products and services:
“Because companies can enforce anti-competitive behavior this way, there's a litany of things that just don't exist, even though they would make life easier for consumers in significant ways. You can't have custom software for your cochlear implant, or your programmable thermostat, or your computer-enabled Barbie doll. An auto repair shop can't design a better diagnostic system that interfaces with a car's computers. And John Deere has claimed that it owns the software on all of its tractors, meaning the farmers that purchase them are prohibited from repairing or modifying their property.”
Adding software to products has changed the relationship between provider and consumer. The buyer no longer takes complete ownership because a (major) part of the product remains under the control of the supplier. With the growth of the IoT, the situation is going to become even more complex.
Standards are pro-competition. Without standards, consumers tend to pay more for less functionality and flexibility. DMCA