Monday, 19 January 2009

A free and open society needs interoperability

Interoperability is a societal issue. It is one that impacts us in our everyday life.

This became – once again – very clear to me when I recently talked to a close friend who is currently looking for a new job. She told me that a possible employer had send her an online document for putting in some personal data before the actual job interview.

So far so good. We are all very happy about the possibility of submitting job applications online and thus avoid the horror of the numerous copies which had to be presented in first-class folders and sent with a cardboard envelope to prevent them from being spoiled.

The problem starts where you are asked to fill in a form which is in a proprietary format. In my friend's case it was a file in the Microsoft Office format .xls. In other words: in order to properly apply for a job offer you are required to use a specific software from one single vendor which does run on a limited number of operating systems only. If you like an analogy: this would be equal to requiring people to send in their hardcopy application printed on paper produced by one specific producer and put in a folder from one single specific company.

This is a serious societal issue which deserves investigation, if not legal action. We are right and glad to have rules that females need to be treated equal to males in job offers, that diversity needs to be respected, that handicapped people need to have equal opportunities. As a society we need to ensure that people are not excluded from applying for a job unless they use one specific piece of proprietary software. Requiring interoperability is a means to achieve that.

We have similar situations in schools today. Children are required to hand in their work in a particular format – be it .doc or .ppt or, even worse, .docx or .pptx. They are required to use a specific product from a single vendor in order to satisfactorily participate in their courses and classes. Mainly because the teacher or the school infrastructure use this software which is not interoperable with other document formats.

These are network effects that are undesirable in a free and competitive society. And they are becoming more critical the more we are moving towards a networked society in all areas, not just business. Collaboration is fantastic. Electronic data sharing are a fantastic means to facilitate and boost collaboration. But for a free and open society it will only be acceptable if interoperability is guaranteed and if there are no lock-in effects.

Or would you like to have to buy a – say – BMW in order to be allowed to enter your future employer's car park for your job interview?