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.