Saturday, March 28, 2009

Proprietary Hell

Actually this is a story about plumbing and more aptly this is a story concerning uniform product standards. Today, I had one of those 15 minute plumbing jobs that took all day to complete. It took all day, because the maker of the faucet, I was attempting to fix, did not use standard parts that allowed interchangeability. After numerous mind numbing trips to the local hardware store and big box supply store looking vainly for parts, I ended up ripping the whole unit out including some ancillary parts. So I assembled my new updated PVC based system. With pride, I turned on the water. Wouldn't you know it, a pin hole leak manifested itself in an old part that connected to the new faucet. So back to the mind numbing cycle of visiting the various hardware stores, discussing options, and buying parts. None of parts worked, so in a fit of desperation, I cut a portion of the pipe going through the compression joint, which removed the leaking component, and cramming the remaining portion of the old fitting into the new PVC line connecting to the faucet with lots and lots of plumber's putty. So far so good.

So what does this story mean in terms of propriety, computer products, and digital rights management (DRM)? The use on non-standard products lacking interoperability results in significant costs in terms of dollars, time, and mental anguish to the consumer. It is also an untold economic cost to society. Think of the time and money that consumers who invested in losing technologies such as Betamax and HD-DVD lost. There is also the issue of mental distress resulting from having invested in these "abandoned" technologies where there is virtually no hope of obtaining a return on your investment. Also, what about all the cell phones that ended up in your local landfill because they could not be unlocked?

Private industry asserts that it is the most effective way to allocate resources. While it does do a reasonable good job, there are situations where people on an individual basis and a society as a whole endure enormous costs in terms of time and money trying to replace proprietary products. If private industry truly wants the efficient allocation of resources and true interoperability; use standard products. Compete on the quality of the product, price, and customer satisfaction.

PS: To be fair, products overtime do evolve. Sometime "old" products will not work with "new" products because of evolutionary changes in technologies, materials, and standards.


Patrick Mullen said...


My wife recently upgraded to Windows Vista and MS Office 2007. The Vista OS seems to be working OK, but the interface is different and she is experiencing quite a learning curve. She finally got MS Office to work after a couple of days of screeching.

I am going to get a book on this stuff; it's "mind numbing."


Steve R. said...

At work we recently "upgraded" to Office 2007. It's been a bit of a learning curve. Actually, I have had a retro experience. In the "old" days one used to use shortcut keys quite a bit. With Word 2000 I never did, now with Word 2007 I am back to using some shortcut keys because it is simpler!