Two days ago, at the Web 2.0 Expo, Adobe’s Kevin Lynch (CTO and SVP, Experience & Technology Organization) made the following comments in relationship to Apple and his view that they want to created a “walled garden” on the web:
If you look at what’s going on now, it’s like railroads in the 1800′s. People were using different gauged rails. Your cars would literally not run on those rails. That’s counter to the web. The ‘rails’ now are companies forcing people to write for a particular OS, which has a high cost to switch.
Lynch’s analogy is very relevant. But not for the reasons he seems to be alluding to.
By 1860 there were seven different rail gauges in use in the United States. This was not the result of a conscious effort by railroads to avoid national standardization. Rail companies like the ones we learned about from playing Monopoly (Pennsylvania Railroad, The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Reading Railroad, Short Line) emerged by serving local markets. Different gauges were not a problem until the networks expanded to the point where carriages needed to cross different railroads. But by that time the problem was entrenched. And given the cost of changing the existing track, each railroad wanted everyone else to adopt their gauge as the standard.
To overcome the lack of gauge standards, cargo had to be unloaded from the carriages on one network to those on another. This 19th century version of infrastructure integration became an industry in it’s own right. Interestingly, it was these rail integrators that most strongly opposed the move towards any standard. After all, it meant the end to their livelihoods. In fact, moves to standardize the gauges led to riots in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1853 – a city where three different gauges converged.
Eventually the standard gauge of 4’8.5” emerged. But it didn’t happen because railroad tycoons agreed on a gauge standard. It happened because the U.S. Congress mandated that gauge for the new rail network know as the Union Pacific. The original congressional act gave President Lincoln the power to decide on the gauge which he established at 5’. That power was rescinded by Congress which then set the gauge standard to what it is today as a direct result of intense lobbying by the large Northeastern railways. So it looks like corporate lobbying was as effective in 19th century America as it is today.
So, what lessons do I take away from Lynch’s railway analogy:
- When infrastructure of any type emerges in a free market environment the only standard of any importance is ubiquity
- The benefits of being the ubiquitous standard and the costs of having to convert to it are enormous. Therefore, in a free market environment, companies will do whatever it takes to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
- Demand-side mandates are significantly more powerful in establishing standards than supply-side accords.
- The most significant demand-side mandates come government funded national infrastructure initiatives. But when governments establish standards in this way the politics of money and influence will have a significant impact on the decision making process.
As I would apply this to the Apple v. Adobe stoush:
- Apple and Adobe’s current disagreement has evolved over time.
- Each company made pragmatic design and technology decisions to secure the market viability of their products and over time and both were successful in establishing ubiquitous standards in their respective areas.
- Now that those areas are overlapping both are engaged in a battle to keep from having to cede their ubiquitous standard to the other.
- Its unlikely that a demand-side mandate will emerge any time soon. But in the event it does it is in the best interest of both Apple and Adobe to keep driving their standards against the other as market clout will have an impact in the decisions made on the demand side.
- Establishing standards creates losers. And the biggest losers are the ones that act as brokers between incompatible systems. At the moment, Adobe looks a bit more like a broker than a system provider.
The bottom line here is that both Apple and Adobe are acting in an entirely predictable fashion in remarkably similar ways to achieve essentially the same objective because both organizations are equally effected by common market forces.
For either party to paint itself as somehow holier and more open than the other is really an insult to everyone’s collective intelligence.
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