There are dozens of different computing devices in my home, ranging from the common—TVs, PCs, smartphones, and digital picture frames—to the unusual. Some of the more eclectic gizmos, like smart alarm clocks and various types of music streamers, deliver kick-ass functionality on their own, but there just isn’t much communication between these devices. There are dozens of different protocols and software interfaces designed to foster communication betwixt electronics kit, but none of the manufacturers use them. Seems like all the cutting-edge hardware we buy these days uses proprietary cables, software, and communications protocols.
Sometimes propriety is the price of progress: A product includes some new functionality that requires more than existing technology allows. Sometimes a vendor chooses one standard over a different competing standard. And sometimes it’s just sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the manufacturer. But regardless of the reason, it’s unacceptable.
Apple does a great job of integrating its gear with other Apple products, but is notoriously bad about integrating with third parties. For example, I still can’t pull photos from my Flickr account into my iPhone without using a third-party app. Likewise, there’s no way to stream the music collection stored on my Windows Home Server to an AppleTV, unless I use Apple’s proprietary iTunes software.
Microsoft is just as bad—some MS products from the same product lines can’t even talk to each other. While my Windows Home Server will stream video and music to my Xbox, the server doesn’t recognize many common file types, including ones the Xbox supports! And while we’re talking about it, why doesn’t my Home Server speak Homegroup, the new scheme Windows 7 uses to share files and printers?
Of course, the humble PC stands in diametric opposition to all these closed, proprietary systems. There are multiple, complementary interfaces to connect to the PC—fast and slow, internal and external, wired and wireless, hardware and software. And, because these specs are open and (in many cases) royalty-free, anyone can connect to, and extend, the PC. This open platform, combined with the speed gains and cost savings delivered by Moore’s Law, powers the technological revolution we’re living in right now. Were the PC not an open platform upon which everyone in the industry innovated, the PC wouldn’t be as fast and cheap as it is today.
So, what’s my point? If you’re a vendor, stop worrying about protecting your market share with proprietary cables and interfaces, and instead focus on differentiating your products the old-fashioned way: Make them better than the other guys’. If you’re just a person who buys this stuff, only spend your money on products that play well with others. If your gear doesn’t work as you’d expect, call the support line and demand to know why. Your gear should never be stymied by conflicting “standards,” whether that aligns with the vendor’s corporate strategy or not.