How Much Interoperability Is Enough?

Interoperability is primarily a matter of the use case, not of the technology. Policymakers considering interoperability mandates need to be watchful for extremes of perfection or compromise, which both offer a game to be exploited by the unscrupulous.

How I Learned To Type

Reviewers of a paper concerning interoperability complained that some sections seemed to imply only 100% functional equivalence would be acceptable, and told us “much smaller percentages are perfectly adequate.” So how much interoperability is enough interoperability? The answer, dear to the hearts of every politician, is “it depends”. 

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Interoperability Policy Considerations

We supported the Internet Society this year in preparing a white paper describing “Considerations for Mandating Open Interfaces”. Both European and US legislators are concerned by the market and political impact of large technology companies like Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google, and a popular line of advocacy seeks legislation to regulate them through enforced interoperability.

At first sight, this seems highly desirable. Why should services like WhatsApp and Google Chat not be forced to interoperate so that users of one can chat with users of the other freely? Why should users of Twitter, Parler and Mastodon not be able to subscribe to each other’s posts and participate equally in their follower networks? But the devil as always is in the details. Means of achieving these things can easily turn out to be problematic, either for technical reasons like architectural incompatibilities or for more subtle competitive reasons. Indeed, it’s notable that the biggest critics of Google and Facebook are the almost-cartels of mobile telephony companies who see in these mandates a way to hobble their most dangerous challengers.

The resulting white paper raises as many of the issues as possible in its slim 32 pages, while also attempting to point at solutions for some of them. You can read the Executive Summary and download the full paper at the Internet Society’s resource page.

Open Source Fonts For Interoperability

Italo Vignoli makes a great point on his blog about the use of fonts. He explains that proprietary software like MS Office uses proprietary fonts by default.

Because of the way they are licensed, they can’t be bundled by other software. That means substitute fonts with different characteristics have to be used. As a consequence, other programs trying to open documents they create — no matter how otherwise interoperable the file format handling becomes — cannot reproduce the same visual appearance or layout since they don’t have the fonts.

The solution to this is open source fonts. They can be freely bundled with software like LibreOffice and thus the documents using them are much more likely to render correctly on other systems.