Information shrapnel and format wars

Digital shrapnel – what is it?

I was at home, at my desk, writing a small memo of things, planning the future. I’ve had a job interview the same day, and in between the possible starting of this work (which was superbly interesting!) I’m going to drive taxi for a month. There was a little bit of this and that, a lot going on, and suddenly I was looking at the paper; thought about my phone calls, text messages, and the urge to read e-mail since I’d gotten information on an SMS about incoming mail. Hey, this was getting chaotic! 😉

I was “talking” to my taxi superior via SMS, and then switched over to email, only to finish with voice. In addition to these 3 aforementioned channels I used pen and paper. So here we go: 4 medium. SMS leaves traces, so does e-mail and paper; SMS is accessible via phone only, e-mail via web, and paper you have to carry. Voice doesn’t usually get recorded. The point is that information gets divided and explodes into shrapnels. This is by no means a trivial problem, when the scale is changed. I also discussed the use and proper sharing of a Gmail Calendar with my girlfriend. My point was that it would be used to show incompatible times; hers was that it should also contain information which would never have to be explicitly said after it’s written in the calendar. Since I’m a man, I argued my point even though could clearly see she was right! 🙂 I’ve always been talking about the need for non-redundancy of information, to make things roll smoothly. Why do something twice, if you can do it once correctly?

When you go from a small, two-party discussions into company-wide (or organization-wide) discussions and information exchange, the choice of medium is very important. In big organizations, there’s also a strong questions about backing up others; sharing information, not just storing it, but also making sure that everyone involved get it.

I like to keep stuff concentrated in one place. It’s the computer. But even within computer we have several channels: desktop, web (with different browsers and extensions), applications, and so on. It used to be that computers were originally totally incompatible. There were Spectravideo, Commodore, Spectrum, and so on, but these had no common executable format or usually anything at all. Perhaps Amiga and Commodore C=64 could do something together, but that’s about it.

This kind of incompatibility was probably caused more by the rush of nerds wanting to get
their own machine done. It wasn’t so much planned, strategic competition. Later on came the very costly, annoying strategic battles between giants. Microsoft wanted its own formats strictly covered, and usable only by their own applications softwares. (Check format war on Wikipedia for background on the general topic)

It’s partly because software houses don’t see any reason to expose their format; exposing means opening up, not using any kind of compression, or at least documenting well what is being used. Documentation should cover the data structures in very detailed format. If the format is documented, there’s the benefit of making others capable of extending or amending the format. But this all means that it’s also a chance to make competitors.

Linux and the open source movement have given a nice example of what it means to be open (as in philosophical meaning) and documenting the work. Although open source is no means a gurantee for good documentation, it is an invitation for anyone to document or contribute code, and discuss products.

With an ever-increasing complexity of systems and the amount of interconnectedness rising, the openness is evermore important. With open systems I think we can really see a positive net effect rising. Companies have already marched forward boldly in the direction where trivial things are not held as strategic competition toysoldiers. Companies do a lot of co-operation in friendly manner, which is good. The skills and attitude of employees, the analytical skills of designers, bright visions, new efficient products, and user-friendliness are things which drive good technology to the homerun. The platform, and the formats are going to be standardized. They’re no longer the competition ground.

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