Depending on your view, the stuff you own is either a boon to business or a tremendous loss of opportunity.
For example, your collection of spice bottles in your pantry means that I could possibly sell you a spice rack. On the other hand, it also means that I can’t design a special spice rack that only admits spice bottles of my own patent-protected design, which would thereby ensure that if you wanted to buy spices in the future you’d either have to buy them from me or throw away that very nice spice rack I sold you.
In the tech world, this question is often framed in terms of “ecosystems” (as in the “Google/Chrome/Android ecosystem”) or platforms (as in the “Facebook platform”) but whatever you call it, the discussion turns on a crucial different concept: sunk cost.
That’s the money, time, mental energy and social friction you’ve already sunk into the stuff you own. Your spice rack’s sunk cost includes the money you spend on the rack, the time you spent buying fixings for it and the time you spent afixing it, the emotional toil of getting your family to agree on a spice rack, and the incredible feeling of dread that arises when you contemplate going through the whole operation again.
If you’ve already got a lot of sunk costs, the canny product strategy is to convince you that you can buy something that will help you organise your spices, rip all your CDs and put them on a mobile device, or keep your clothes organised.
But what a vendor really wants is to get you to sink cost into his platform, ecosystem, or what have you. To convince you to buy his wares, in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll go on doing so – because they match the decor, because you already have the adapters, and so on.
The vendor wants to impose a switching cost on you, to penalise you for disloyalty should you defect to another ecosystem/platform. The higher your switching costs, the worse the vendor can afford to treat you – rather than supplying the best goods at the best price, he can provide the best goods at the best price, plus the switching cost you’d have to pay if you went somewhere else. Or he can offer the best price, but offer goods whose manufacture – and quality – is cheaper by a sum of about the cost you’d have to pay for switching.
Without competition, this would all go very badly indeed. When an entrenched vendor grows too predatory, another vendor is likely to enter the same market, offering a better deal – a whole kitchen replacement that comes with a spice-rack to fit all brands of spice (but may require some expensive inserts to fit the fiddly drawers).
The thing to pay attention to is the gap between the extra bit of price/quality squeezing that the vendor can exert upon you before a competitor emerges. The bigger that gap is, the more pain you have to endure before a rival steps in with something better. The size of the gap is determined by both law and technology.
Firstly, technology. Companies often add technical countermeasures to their products to lock their customers in. Your gadget might take a nonstandard battery, or need a strange screwdriver to open the case.
Secondly, law. Governments often intervene to protect walled gardens. For example, the proprietary connector on your power adapter might be patented, meaning that even if a competitor can figure out how to make a cheaper and/or better version, doing so would expose them to horrific legal jeopardy. Patents last 20 years, so it’s likely your gizmo will be long gone before someone can release third-party spares.
It’s not just patents. Global copyright laws establish special protection for any technology that can make a claim – however silly – to preventing copyrighted material from being accessed without permission. These laws, like the US DMCA and the EUCD, criminalise any such breach – they even ban revealing information that would facilitate such a breach, such as bulletins about significant flaws in your devices that could expose you to personal and financial risks.
Importantly, the stricture against unlocking these devices is not limited to copyright matters. Copyright has nothing to say about which legitimaely acquired software you are allowed to run on your phone. But if you have an iPhone and you want to run non-Apple software, you have to remove its locks – notionally an anti-piracy measure – to do so. And that’s against the law, so you can’t.
When Apple introduced iTunes, it was with the slogan “Rip, mix, burn” – take your music collection and use Apple’s product to manage it all.
But if you wanted to do the same – install non-Apple apps on your iPhone for example, you’d be out of luck.
Whether you’re talking about iTunes’ Rip/Mix/Burn for your CDs, or a jailbreaking tool that lets you install third-party software on your iPhone, the same principal is at play: “adversarial compatibility.”
That’s when company B figures out how to work with company A’s products in spite of company A’s objections, overcoming any technical countermeasures introduced by company A.
Adversarial compatibility is one of the secret pivots on which technology turns. Every successful company starts out by being adversarially compatible with what’s already in the market, and every company that attains success tries to stop other companies from doing the same thing to it. In other words, every pirate secretly dreams of becoming an admiral.
Without adversarial compatibility, your property could only be improved in ways that the manufacturer believed wouldn’t interfere with its business. You’d never be able to fit a third-party phone case, or plug a phone charger into the lighter of your car.
There’s more at stake than consumer rights, though. There are lots of modifications that the original supplier would never make possible because they just don’t see any profit in it. If you want to mix paint in a Magimix, that’s fine, but don’t expect the company to provide paint-mixing attachments to help you with your weird bodge.
There are two groups of people who especially rely on this kind of thing: poor people – especially the global poor – and people with disabilities.
These groups of people have all sorts of needs that are unique to their situation that leads them to adapt technology for their own needs – whether that’s Mohammed Osman Ali, a Somali refugee in a Ugandan refugee camp who repurposes Playstation consoles to serve as merchandise in a makeshift arcade, ruggedising the controllers to survive continuous hard use; or carers of people with dementia who cover up or glue shut unneeded and confusing buttons on TV remotes; or Brazilian hackers who localise free and open-source software so that it can be more readily used by the kids who visit the “telecentros” in the favelas of Rio
It’s unlikely that the vendors who produced these goods would not agree to these uses, but if their products are designed with technical countermeasures that can’t be defeated without falling afoul of the law, no one will be able to advertise a service or even post DIY instructions online without facing legal jeopardy.
Both states and industries have long recognised the value of standardisation, whether that’s mains-plugs or wall-studs. No engineering firm would ever be allowed to use secretive, proprietary systems to calculate the load-stresses on your home and prohibit you from knocking out a wall without using their special RSJs.
But when it comes to commercial firms, there is an unresolvable tension between openness and closedness.
Unfortunately, lawmakers and regulators are often swayed by companies who convince them into making rules that sabotage adversarial compatibility. There’s no excuse for it, really. Without the right to change your stuff in ways that the company that made it doesn’t like, you are forever a prisoner to that company’s whims and priorities.
Or, as the Maker Manifesto has it: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”