Reverse Engineering Can Resolve Conflict Between Standardization And Competition

from the dmca-for-example dept

Over at the Technology Liberation Front, my co-blogger Adam Thierer discusses the trade-offs between platform competition and standardization, a subject Mike has written about in the past. Adam explores the mobile phone and console markets, and points out that the proliferation of incompatible devices has created real costs for developers who want to build on top of those various platforms. He makes some good observations, but I think he’s missing the importance of reverse-engineering in resolving the dilemma he identifies. If a platform is proprietary, then we really do face a trade-off between standardization and competition. But open, flexible standards allow both: many firms can offer competing products, but they all work together because they’re all designed for a common platform. Moreover, if the standard is well designed, the competing products can offer a wide variety of different features, and the standard can grow and evolve over time as vendors propose and adopt new extensions. That’s the story of the web, for example, which features both competition and interoperability. The standard has evolved organically, as various vendors proposed and adopted new standards and often adopted those of their competitors.

The question, of course, is how to reach this “sweet spot” of an open, flexible, and universal platform. Sometimes (as with the web) we just get lucky, and the designer of the initial standard has the foresight to make it open and extensible. But when that doesn’t happen, and it often doesn’t, the next best hope is reverse engineering: a company (e.g. IBM) develops a proprietary platform which achieves popularity and is then reverse-engineered by competitors, transforming it into a de facto open standard. The modern PC platform isn’t really controlled by anybody, although Microsoft and Intel have more influence than most other vendors. And because nobody controls it, it’s both fiercely competitive and highly interoperable.

Because reverse engineering is so important in transforming closed standards into open ones, we should be especially worried about laws that stand in the way of that process. I’ve written before that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is one such roadblock. For example, one would expect companies to be working hard to reverse-engineer Apple’s iTunes-iPod ecosystem in order to sell iPod clones. We might expect the emergence of a de facto open standard around Apple’s platform, with a variety of iPod clones and drop-in iTunes replacements. Unfortunately, in part because the DMCA limits the reverse-engineering of FairPlay, Apple’s DRM technology, few vendors have attempted this. Hence, the DMCA is helping to perpetuate the competition-versus-standardization dilemma Adam laments.

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Comments on “Reverse Engineering Can Resolve Conflict Between Standardization And Competition”

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9 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

PCs were always open hardware

a company (e.g. IBM) develops a proprietary platform which achieves popularity and is then reverse-engineered by competitors, transforming it into a de facto open standard.

Actually, the PC hardware was open from the very beginning. You could by the IBM Personal Computer Technical Manual (I used to have one) from IBM that included all the details of the system right down to the very last circuit. No reverse engineering required. No licensing required. The hardware was completely open.

The actual listing for the complete BIOS firmware code was include in that manual too! This code, however, was copyrighted. That required third party companies to develop their own “clean room” BIOS versions before the clone market could really take off. Before that you could still legally build or buy your own clone but you had to provide your own BIOS which plugged into the board.

This is in stark contrast to the Apple MacIntosh which was completely closed and required licensing to even develop add-in hardware.

Hulser says:

Unfortunately?

Unfortunately, in part because the DMCA limits the reverse-engineering of FairPlay, Apple’s DRM technology, few vendors have attempted this. Hence, the DMCA is helping to perpetuate the competition-versus-standardization dilemma Adam laments.

Why do you say “unfortunately”? Unfortunate for who, the general public or Apple? TD has pointed out plenty of misuses for the DMCA in the past, but it seems reasonable that Apple’s FairPlay is protected from reverse engineering. Sure, the world might be a better place if Apple opened up its systems to allow for clones, but it seems to me that Apple is doing OK with its closed system business model.

Are you saying that it’s unfortunate that DMCA provides this specific type of protection because the general public would be better off without it? (To be honest, I’m not sure what could legally be reverse engineered before the DMCA.) Or are you saying that it’s unfortunate that Apple has chosen a business model based on a closed system because it could make more money with an open system?

Ajax 4Hire says:

Any Engineer worth their salt will tell you...

that Reverse Engineering and Plagiarism is the Engineering creed.

Don’t re-invent the wheel is a mantra to Plagiarism.

How is this made?
How does this work?
That is Reverse Engineering.

You find a kid who takes things apart to see how they work and you find your next engineer. There is no magic, this stuff just doesn’t happen.

The next lawsuit on the docket is Terrorist use the information from “The History Channel” report on how the Panama Canal was made.

Anonymous Coward says:

DMCA = end of property and ownership in America

That iPod or XBOX360 you own, yeah well its not really yours. I know this becuase it would be a crime for you to take it apart to try to figure out how it works. There used to be the idea that when a man paid for something it became his property (and this idea of property and ownership was viewed as important, even sacred), it was his and he could do as he liked with it. Unfortunately this is “old” thinking in todays America.

mobiGeek says:

Re: Author is clueless

First, the breaking of Apple’s DRM is illegal and this was Tim’s point.

Second, the fact that people have cracked the DRM does not open the field for others to play in the iPod/iTunes arena (i.e. other companies are not selling enhancements/extensions) because they are shut out by the closed system that Apple has created (e.g. no iPod clones, as Tim mentioned)

Snidely (profile) says:

But what if mine is better than yours?

The argument is even more relevant in the mobile telecom world. Europe adopted the standardization model “GSM” and the US fought a technology battle between CDMA and GSM that hampered growth of the mobile phone industry in the US.

So, you look back at mobile phone industry and say, we should have all standardized in 1994. But what happens when the technology that does not become the standard is technically superior?

We may force markets to keep an inferior technology because that was the approved standard. This is the case with GSM and CDMA. CDMA is a technically superior method of processing mobile phone calls, but will be consigned to the history books in a few years when the two main supporters (Verizon and Sprint) move to LTE and WiMax. (Qualcomm’s painful licensing scheme only accelerated their inevitable demise). It’s a shame that some technologies will be overlooked if we move to more of a standardization model.

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