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.

2 thoughts on “Products vs Protocols

  1. Lizzy

    Glad someone can appreciate ‘the good old days’. I was just having a conversation about something similar, earlier this evening. How people that are dependant on smart phones always need to get newer versions at a consistent rate because at some point theirs either stops working, or needs an updated version in order to access certain apps.

    That was not the case way back when. Things lasted until they actually broke. And they were ‘their own’ device, and didn’t need to sync or be compatible with anything else.

    But instead of creating products to meet a certain need,…. a need is created that then causes a demand.

    People now just assume that they will constantly need to replace their phones and laptops (one more often than the other) whearse before, you expected that a product would last at least until (if not past) the warranty date. Remember when things were guaranteed for 10 years? Our standard of quality have been lowered in lieu of ‘newer’. Or as I once heard it referred to as – the B.B.D (Bigger Better Deal).

    We are addicted to new and shiny, regardless of whether or not it’s necessary. Just watch Goofy in “how to hook up your home theatre” (short version):

    In the 1950’s and 60’s, people used to be able to inherit their parents (or grandparents) cars car and they would still run pretty well. Those things were built like tanks and could survive many fender benders without really draining the pocket book. Now, (with a few model exceptions) they make them so poorly that you don’t expect most cars to last past the amount of years of the loan, and certainly not to survive an accident without having to pump thousands of dollars into it, at which point most people would say “it’s not worth it” and just get a new car.

    But getting back to electronics – I find it interesting that people will make fun of what was used in the 80’s and 90’s not even realizing that a lot of what ‘they’ currently ‘rooted’ in the past.

    Which is another reason why I will never get rid of my Flip Phone. I don’t have to worry about data charges or gigs, or running out of minutes. For very little money – it does what it was built to do. And it doesn’t need to sync with or be compatible with anything else. I will keep Flippy until it breaks – which is what we’re supposed to do with stuff anyway. :-)

    1. joey

      I would counterargue that, to a certain extent, by saying that there’s a few spectra in your recollection that aren’t well represented. Yes, smartphone churn is its own phenomenon, but up until very recently, it was possible to get the latest flagship model for $200 in exchange for renewing your contract, and it’s not like the carrier would lower your bill once the balance was paid off. If you’re renewing your contract anyway, and getting this years latest-and-greatest is relatively inexpensive, keeping one’s phone for five years “just because” isn’t a cost effective proposition.

      Things being their “own” device is another exercise in Wisdom. If memory serves, you have a Roku device that accesses media from your computer. If one stops being compatible with the other, then the ability to enjoy media that exists on your computer goes along with it. Conversely, companies like Western Digital make devices that can be “standalone” media players, but then you have to perform file management tasks in order to access your media. Interconnectivity is not inherently a bad thing, just because it is abused by some.

      Things getting a “ten year warranty” were not precisely the norm, and it is still possible to get such warranties on at least some goods. The bigger issue is the fact that warranties tend to cover less than they used to. At the same time, many things lasted longer because they were more user serviceable, but it was expected that the user would change a belt here, or dust the radiator exhaust there. Sure, refrigerators don’t last 30 years anymore. They do last 15, however, and adjusted for inflation, cost a bit less and require zero maintenance from the end user.

      SOME cars managed to make it to inheritance level. However, ask someone your parent’s age if anybody they knew had a car that made it to 125,000 miles. One or two might, particularly if they were a higher tier model (Cadillac, etc.), and the owner was handy with a socket wrench and knew a guy at a junkyard. Everyday cars (the “Toyota Camry” of the day) seldom turned the sixth digit on the odometer – a number of cars from that day didn’t have a sixth digit at all. My vehicle is at 188,000 miles, and still easily has another 30,000 or more in it. Even at that, cars tended to be built like tanks, because there was a cultural preference for the car to survive an accident, rather than the human. Today’s cars are intended to absorb impact to keep the driver safe. Whether it’s better that the car look like an accordion after running into a shopping cart but the driver likely walks away from a 25mph collision with a telephone pole, or a car gets a small dent and is perfectly serviceable for the now-paralyzed driver, is a tradeoff exercise left to the reader.

      Finally, I’ll certainly agree that the turnover of cell phones is at a much higher rate that things used to be, but how many things has it potentially replaced? Alarm clock, camcorder, still camera, MP3 player, Game Boy, GPS/Satnav, Palm Pilot (itself replacing a calendar, address book, password book, and shopping list pad), and pager. Even if you replaced each of those things once every ten years, you’d be performing more replacements over the same period, there would probably be a greater outlay of funds over the same time.

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