Bring Back Interoperability

The concept of “creative destruction” and “adversarial interoperability” is particularly relevant in the context of modern technology. We need to allow new technologies to work with existing platforms without legal repercussions and foster interoperability.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

A while back I wrote about John Philip Sousa, and his vocal opposition to Thomas Alva Edison’s innovation - recorded music. The point I made in that article was that Sousa’s angst with the phonograph was not an isolated incident. Those feelings re-surfaced time and again, every time the music industry faced some new disruption - when tapes replaced vinyl records; when MP3s replaced CDs - and we are feeling it now as streaming music is threatening to upend the industry yet again.

But, as I wrote, change of this sort is not just inevitable, it’s good:

History has shown us that Sousa’s fears were unfounded. Not only did music not die, it evolved, flourishing in myriad new ways that simply would not have been possible had it not been for recording technologies. As records were replaced by magnetic tape, fidelity improved to the point where singers could record with their voices at a whisper. This meant that audiences were able to experience sounds that were impossible to produce in concert halls. Music itself became more perfect, as musicians could hear the mistakes they made on their recordings and correct them before they were released to the public. They had new opportunities for experimentation. They could splice together bits of different recordings to create new ones, giving rise to new genres of music based on remixes of existing works. They invented tools, such as loopers, that played sequences of music in a constant loop, adding unique musical elements to their repertoire. With advances in electronics, they began to construct layered, intricate soundscapes that would have otherwise been impossible to fashion.

Creative Destruction

Joseph Schumpeter called this creative destruction - the process of industrial mutation that revolutionises the economic structure from within, destroying the old and replacing it with the new. Dynamic economies need to constantly renew and re-invigorate themselves and creative destruction is how they do that.

In the early days of the internet, when technology systems were a lot more interoperable - creative destruction was the norm rather than the exception. No company, no matter how large, could ever claim to be too big to be disrupted by the next big idea. Network effects was not an impediment but the incentive to engage in creative destruction - and since all systems were interoperable, user lock-in was unheard off.

Things couldn’t be more different today. Technology platforms are massive behemoths with more users than the population of most countries. Not only do they do very little to encourage interoperability - they often work to make it impossible to achieve.

Adversarial Interoperability

[[Cory Doctorow]], believes that what we really need today, is adversarial interoperability. He wants new technologies to be able to work with existing systems even if the owners of those incumbent systems don’t approve. In other words, he wants the tech industry to go back to its roots:

Adversarial interoperability was once the driver of tech’s dynamic marketplace, where the biggest firms could go from top of the heap to scrap metal in an eyeblink, where tiny startups could topple dominant companies before they even knew what hit them.

Interoperability has been an integral part of the life history of most big tech companies. Apple ensured that documents created in Microsoft’s Office suite could also be viewed inside the Mac environment - and going even further by committing to ensure that they continued to work despite each Microsoft upgrade. Facebook made sure that the MySpace users it was looking to entice could easily port their posts and photographs onto its new service even though the latter was not exactly thrilled that this was happening. Similar examples abound all over the tech space.

But even though tech companies made use of interoperability to become what they are today, they are eager to ensure that they do not, themselves, fall victim to the [[creative destruction]] it will cause. Accordingly much effort has been invested into ensuring that attempts at interoperating with their platforms without permission are dealt with swiftly and decisively. This is why tech companies aggressively discourage the use of unauthorised spares and crack down heavily on unauthorised service centres. It is the reason behind legislative amendments such as the anti-circumvention provisions in copyright law - that were designed to blunt the ability of new businesses to disrupt existing technologies.

We need to make it possible for new technologies to once again interoperate with incumbent platforms without the risk of prosecution. It is what allowed the tech industry to develop up to this point and is what will be necessary to ensure that it continues to develop out into the future.


Over the past few months, I’ve had an opportunity to work on a few practical implementation of the Open Credit Enablement Network Specification (OCEN). I have been struck by the way in which these principles foster the sort of interoperability that Doctorow has been calling for.

The bold ambition of OCEN is to fix India’s broken credit market infrastructure. The solution it proposes calls for the unbundling of lending by disaggregating the entire loan ecosystem and then atomising it down to its constituent parts. This allows multiple specialized entities to each individually perform one of the many sub-tasks that go into a lending product. Some entities will focus on sourcing and distribution while others will carry out identity verification, underwriting, capital arrangement, cash entrapment and a whole host of other functions. For all these entities the OCEN specification will be the common language that will string the different functions they perform into a single coherent user experience.

At scale, OCEN will generate a profusion of products. There is nothing like taking apart an entire ecosystem to help you realise that there are many other ways in which it could be put back together again than even you thought were possible.

But perhaps more significantly, by atomising loan services in this fashion we will have created an army of micro-service providers and given each of them the opportunity to develop a whole new set of highly atomised skills. We can then string some or all of these different service providers together in countless different ways giving rise to dozens of new and innovative products and several more novel and efficient ways of getting things done.

For OCEN to work each constituent entity must be capable of radically interoperating with every other. And when we are able to achieve that level of interaction we will have brought back some of the adversarial interoperability magic that we so desperately need today.