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9/25/2009
08:03 AM
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Google's Dataliberation.org a Public Policy Blow for Freedom

I'll admit it, I was raised paranoid. So, part of me is highly suspicious of Google when the IT world seems like a bunch of crazed lemmings leaping to ADOPT GOOGLE'S SEXSAH NEW OFFERINGS RIGHT NOW. But Google, despite the fact that it is a Massive Empire, may well be the real deal when it comes to understanding what smart CIOs need. And frankly, they may be contributing to reversing a terrible public policy trend.

I'll admit it, I was raised paranoid. So, part of me is highly suspicious of Google when the IT world seems like a bunch of crazed lemmings leaping to ADOPT GOOGLE'S SEXSAH NEW OFFERINGS RIGHT NOW. But Google, despite the fact that it is a Massive Empire, may well be the real deal when it comes to understanding what smart CIOs need. And frankly, they may be contributing to reversing a terrible public policy trend.What do I mean? Well, it's undeniable that greed-crazed software vendors created perhaps some of the most effective customer lock-in the business world has ever seen. Customer lock-in means higher margins. If customers can't switch, you can jack prices up, and up, and up. And greed-crazed manufacturers have sat up and taken notice. If Google is more successful than their lock-in competitors, this will be good for CIOs, and it will be good for business.

Good for me, bad for you

File formats have traditionally been a battleground between customers and vendors. Proprietary formats meant, "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." Peter Quinn, ex-CIO of the State of Massachusetts, thought it would be a good idea to save money for taxpayers by standardizing on open formats. But then, in a surreal and frightening demonstration of the power of vendors over government, ultimately, Quinn's battle over file formats led to his departure.

Similar lock-in stories are playing themselves out in the software as a service space. Because the software world has an atmosphere where lock-in has been tolerated, some SaaS vendors offer "too good to be true" initial pricing, with, um, no way to get your data out of their software. Want to leave? Use another SaaS vendor? Don't like how your prices keep escalating? Sure, you just can't take it with you. Ha, ha, ha.

One organization that I have worked with was told by a SaaS provider, "why do you want to back up the data? We back it up for you, there's no need for you to have your data." The implication was that the provider would always be around. Well, as we know, providers come, and providers go, and good CIOs try to mitigate that impact by having a data migration plan.

Closed source cars

The software world's success with what would seem to be anti-competitive practices have emboldened vehicle manufacturers to play the same crazy game. And software patents, the crazy idea that an algorithm is patentable, has probably thrown fuel on the fire.

Don't you have the right to fix your car? Don't you have the right to decide who repairs your car? Well, no. According to Glen Wilder, an independent dealer in Massachusetts, "car manufacturers continue to hold back on some of the information that your mechanic needs in order to properly repair your car and reset your codes and warning lights." Kind of like file formats, no?

So, you have the right to go to a super expensive dealership for the privilege of getting them to interface with the car's computers. Want to switch? Sure, go buy a car that's more than 15 years old, before the Feds mandated computers in cars. Not much of a choice.

The source of fair competition

True competition comes from innovation, not lock-in. And Google has articulated this well. Google's Brian Fitzpatrick states "When your users are locked in, there's a strong temptation to be complacent and focus less on making your product better." And that's true. But, Google's also making a statement by posting it on their public policy blog.

Google's new site, the Data Liberation Front (or was that the Liberation of Data Front?) is a how-to manual on how to leave Google's applications, how to pick up your data and go. This is a welcome concept to CIOs, to be sure. But perhaps more importantly, Google is a significant and powerful corporation, and, intentional or not, it is sending a shot across the bow of all organizations who think they can compete in the global marketplace by locking customers in and artificially restricting choice.

Jonathan Feldman is an InformationWeek Analytics contributor who works with IT governance in North Carolina. Comment here or write to him at jf@feldman.org or @_jfeldman on Twitter.

Read more about IT governance at governance.informationweek.com

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