Where’s our Deep Interoperability?

I was surprised to learn that the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) completed its work this week, transferring its intellectual property to OASIS and calling it a day. Hooray! All Web Services implementations can now be fully interoperable! Simply make sure your vendors follow the now-final WS-I practices and conflicts between products from different vendors are now a thing of the past!

Not so fast.

At ZapThink we like to say that open standards are the bumps on the Legos. The whole point to standards like those in the Web Services family is to provide seamless interoperability between products that support those standards. After all, what fun would Legos be if the bumps were all different sizes?

Unfortunately, standards alone never guaranteed interoperability, which is why WS-I existed in the first place. The WS-I committee hammered out specific ways to implement specific standards, offering guidance to vendors on how to implement the standards to guarantee interoperability.

So now, the WS-I committee says that they’re all done. But wait! Where’s our seamless interoperability?

While the Web Services standards were an important step in the long road to true interoperability, the static interfaces that these standards specify are only part of the story. Contracted interfaces alone can never guarantee interoperability long-term.

The story, of course, is one of change. The Lego metaphor breaks down, because the bumps have never needed to change. Today’s Legos interoperate with Legos from fifty years ago, because our requirements for the plastic blocks are essentially the same as they were back then. But in the world of IT, change is constant, as it is for the business requirements that drive IT. Any fixed set of standards, no matter how robust and detailed, will never solve the interoperability problem for long.

Lest we forget, this story is not a new one. Remember the analog modem market from the 1980s and 1990s? 300 baud acoustic couplers gave way to 1200 baud then 2400, on up to 56K before newer technologies like ADSL took over. But in the heyday of the analog modem, each box supported multiple standard protocols, and would attempt to negotiate with the modem on the other end of the line using the fastest protocol it knew. If that didn’t work, each modem tried the next slower one, and the next, until they were able to establish a connection.

We need the same kind of process now with general product-to-product interoperability, only while the modem interaction story was single-dimensional, now we’re working in multiple dimensions. As a result, the “modem negotiation” model of interoperability is now orders of magnitude more complex.

Eventually, however, the vendors will figure it out. At that point we will have what ZapThink calls Deep Interoperability. Deep Interoperability – one of the ZapThink 2020 Supertrends – suggests that products actively change how they seek to interoperate until they’re successful. Modem negotiation on steroids.

Imagine: you buy a new enterprise IT product. You hook it to the network and turn it on. It automatically negotiates with everything else in your environment until it’s fully integrated. And when something changes, it negotiates again as needed.

Are vendors working on Deep Interoperability now? It’s not clear. Unfortunately, they’re not very motivated to get interoperability right. After all, proprietary interfaces lead to customer lock-in, and all vendors want that.

So maybe that’s why WS-I has thrown in the towel. Vendors were driving the effort all along, of course. They love paying lip service to standard interfaces, because customers demand them. But if such standards really worked – if products truly interoperated, in a way that stood the test of time – then you could easily replace a poorer product with a better one.

And what vendor today wants that?