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.