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Pursuing Lock-In
Architecture wars (also known as standards wars) occur because information technology markets require standards in order to manage complexity, communication, and technological change. Historically, proprietary control over a major information technology standard has created more wealth than nearly any other human activity. Architectural dominance mints money; and managed properly, it lasts forever. IBM’s mainframe architecture was introduced in 1964; Intel developed its first microprocessor in 1971; Microsoft’s first operating system was introduced in 1981; Cisco Systems marketed its first router in 1986. None shows any signs of disappearing, and each has already generated hundreds of billions of dollars in cumulative revenues.

It is only standardization that makes it possible for any browser to display any Web page, or for people to read the documents and e-mail messages they receive from each other. Standards are generally based upon the interfaces that constitute the authorized ways for software systems to communicate with each other. These include application programming interfaces, or APIs, like those Microsoft provides for developing Windows applications; communications protocols such as HTTP (the hypertext transfer protocol), which allows browsers to communicate with websites; and content or document structures, such as the HTML (hypertext markup language) standard for Web pages, or the document structure used by Microsoft Word. These standards are embedded in larger architectures used in the design of general-purpose commercial systems, or platforms, such as the Windows operating system. Platforms, in turn, are used as the starting point for specific applications, such as word processors or accounting systems.

Sometimes standardization is achieved through nonproprietary efforts managed by governments, standards bodies, or industry coalitions. Examples include the basic Internet protocols, the HDTV broadcasting standard, and most telephone standards. In other cases, like that of the Ethernet protocol invented by Bob Metcalfe while at Xerox PARC, a company donates an architecture to a standards body in the hope of creating or expanding a market. The open-source movement is an interesting variant of nonproprietary standardization based on decentralized control. In the case of open-source software like the Linux operating system, a community of creators and users in effect votes continuously on the direction of a standard.

But in most information technology markets, standardization is achieved via market competition. These contests are extremely complex, but they have a common underlying logic, which Charles Morris and I described a decade ago in our book Computer Wars. The best technology does not always win; superior strategy is often more important. Winners do tend, however, to share several important characteristics. They provide general-purpose, hardware-independent architectures, like Microsoft’s operating systems, rather than bundled hardware and software, like Apple’s and Sun’s systems. Winning architectures are proprietary and difficult to clone, but they are also externally “open” – that is, they provide publicly accessible interfaces upon which a wide variety of applications can be constructed by independent vendors and users. In this way, an architecture reaches all markets, and also creates “lock-in” – meaning that users become captive to it, unable to switch to rival systems without great pain and expense.

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