Open Architectures Invite Improvement

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-05-13 Print this article Print

Peter Coffee: In the long run, the power of community processes based on shared foundation technologies will always humble even the most brilliant individual contribution.

En route to weekend backpacking trips with my sons active Boy Scout troop, Im sure that Ive seen the well-placed warning sign for the tricky left-lane transition to Highway 5, just north of L.A. I had no idea, however, that this sign was the work of an independent artist, who designed and installed it as an act of "guerilla public service." The artists painstaking hack (to use the word in the honorable tradition made famous by MIT) reminded me of my conversation last November with Microsoft product manager John Montgomery. Wanting real-time information on increasingly congested Seattle-area traffic, Montgomerys colleagues wrapped an existing Web site using the .Net Mobile Internet Toolkit to create a cell-phone-accessible service. Like the Highway 5 sign artist, the Microsoft developers were able to enhance an existing public infrastructure in a way that made it more valuable to others as well as to themselves.
Its ironic that Microsoft should serve as my second example of extending an open architecture: About sixteen years ago, I found the company doing just the opposite. I had recently learned to use the Resource Editor on the Macintosh to customize application menus, when Microsoft introduced its own menu customization facility in its Macintosh version of Microsoft Word. The switch took Words menus out of the standard Macintosh resource format and buried them in some internal data structure not accessible to the usual tools. Was it more convenient? Yes. And thats the dilemma, isnt it?
I have to come down on the side of open architectures based on fully disclosed standards that make it possible for users to improve things—instead of limiting them to the pace of improvement dictated by any single vendor of any innovative but proprietary approach. Yes, some standards could have been better conceived: the QWERTY keyboard, the Phillips-head screw, the ASCII coding scheme, and the FORTRAN language are examples that come to mind. All have their flaws. But their net contributions are overwhelmingly positive. In the long run, the power of community processes based on shared foundation technologies will always humble even the most brilliant individual contribution. Yes, I believe that intellectual property is just that: property, something that has value and that can be bought and sold. I believe that properly administered patent and copyright mechanisms are valuable. But I hope that the IT community will choose to buy the kind of intellectual property thats open to improvement instead of being limited by its original vendors vision. E-mail eWEEK Technology Editor Peter Coffee
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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