The Myth of Openness

When wearing my media consulting cap, I caution marketers and corporate communications professionals against overusing the myriad of buzzwords that comprise the public relations jargon of the computer industry. The list includes such notable terms as revolutionary, one-of-a-kind, breakthrough and seamless integration.

Such odious iterations are an annoyance and a waste of good public relations money because they function like white noise playing in the background.

But there is one term that I find the most offensive and misleading by far: a term that individual companies and entire market segments have employed to trick users into thinking there is inherent value in any product or service branded with this communications sleight of hand. I’m referring to the term "open" and its various derivatives -- such as open systems, open software, open connections, openness, and so forth.

The allure of this word is so powerful that it has spawned the naming of industry groups such as, the Open Software Foundation or OSF; publications like Open Systems World; and vendors such as Open Market. At last check, the publication was dead, the OSF had greatly diminished in prestige, and Open Market was not doing so hot either.

Despite such dubious achievements, the open bandwagon rolls on. Early last month Sun Microsystems Computer Co. announced it would take steps to place its Java programming language more in the public domain. I’m not certain what that means exactly, but I’ll wager the move is designed to make Java more "open." So many things these days, from Microsoft Corp.'s NT to IBM Corp.'s mainframes, are touted as open to some degree or another.

It is safe to say that this highly regarded attribute of computer systems is the most prized marketing gimmick used today. This of course raises the question, just what is "open"?

Purists will tell you that openness is characterized by technologies, protocols or standards that are promulgated and overseen entirely by quasi-public governing bodies, not by individual vendors or small cliques of vendors. The Internet -- governed by the Internet Protocol -- is a good example of a truly open entity. No one owns it or could own it. It’s public, truly open and accessible to all -- vendors and users alike -- provided everyone adheres to the protocol.

What about the Open Software Foundation? Dig back in history and you’ll find it was formed as a coalition (consisting of Digital Equipment Corp., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and others against another coalition, primarily Sun and AT&T Corp., which then owned Unix. How open was OSF? What do you think?

What about Java? It has broad support among many different vendors. Sun appears to be poised to do what it and others have insisted Microsoft do with its operating systems -- namely, place the operating systems in the public domain. Is Java an emerging "open" standard, or just an attempt by Sun and its cohorts to end the Microsoft hegemony? What do you think?

I’ll tell you what I think. Openness is a state of being that can only be attained with the active support and endorsement of users who buy products or employ technologies to such a degree that a de facto state of openness is created, regardless of whether one vendor or 100 vendors control the product or technology in question.

Think back to what may be the single-most successful, business-critical computer system ever made. I’m talking about the IBM AS/400. In actuality, it was as non-open as a system can get. It was, and is, a wholly proprietary hardware and software combination controlled by IBM. That fact never mattered to the hundreds of thousands of AS/400 buyers around the world.

What did matter was that IBM galvanized an enormous number of third-party developers who put real meaning in the AS/400 acronym, which stands for Application System. It was the third parties and their solutions that, along with IBM, were responsible for the AS/400’s appeal. Collectively, they drove many of the AS/400’s developments during its 12-year history, and they did so by reflecting the needs and desires of their customers. If that isn't open in spirit and actual deed, I don’t know what is.

The same should be said of Windows. The operating system and all future iterations of it will only be as successful as Microsoft’s ability to continue to drive a huge legion of third-party, independent developers, who in turn are driven by their customers.

Contrast these kinds of real "openness" with the callous use of the term we see in most instances today. You’ll probably agree that open is a relative term: One that has real meaning to you only when it is attached to a user-driven set of products or services. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.