Products vs Protocols

I was thinking today about the tech industry and its trends. More and more, I see attempts to make a ‘vertical market’, which I’m certain is recommended in management and marketing school. Unfortunately, vertical markets are incredibly profitable – Apple/iOS, Facebook, Oracle…If you can make everyone dependent on exclusively your product, your company makes more money than the other companies doing the same.

The problem is that these things only last as long as they are profitable. There was no meaningful way of accessing Myspace messages aside from Myspace, so any messages sent on that platform are probably gone now. If you had any music that used PlaysForSure or got stuck with a Sony music player that used SonicStage, I’m guessing that you too had a pretty bad day a few years ago; my apologies for drudging up the bad memories. The stories that sound like this go on and on, in a near cyclical format, throughout computer history.

Protocols, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether. They’re generally not terribly profitable for anyone who makes them (unless there’s some sort of licensing system in place), but protocols tend to stand the test of time much better. The roots of HTTP go back to 1991 – HTTP is the protocol that allows you to be reading this blog right now. Also happily powering this blog, though not a protocol in the strictest sense, is SQL, which is the database language standard that powers the back end of this site. SSH allows me to do some back end management, and was first released in 1995. SMTP, the protocol that allows e-mail to work, hit the streets in 1982, and no matter how much Google tries to kill it with fire, Gmail still ultimately uses the 30 year old protocol. MIDI, the protocol that allows some of my DJ gear to work, and a number of live musicians to change their keyboard sounds in real-time using their laptop, was first standardized in 1983. If you’ve been to a theatrical performance with any lights that moved, you’ve seen the result of DMX512, the protocol that allows the lighting guy to control the lights, and introduced to the world in 1990. 802.11 has been through a few revisions (b, a, g, a few flavors of ‘n’, and a few flavors of ‘ac’), but that protocol is better known by its common name of “Wi-Fi”, that allows your Netgear router to talk to your Apple iPhone, your Dell laptop, and your Samsung TV.

Designing a protocol isn’t terribly sexy, and isn’t terribly profitable, but without protocols being developed, we see the problems of incompatibility between vertical market vendors prevent users from using the products that meet their requirements best. It’s not in the user’s best interest. Unfortunately though, we live in a world where ‘facilitating end users to do what they need to do” is a solid secondary-at-best consideration in comparison to the need for the customer to be locked into the products.

And this is why all the nice things are results of the 80’s and 90’s.

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