IT’s monopoly addiction

Information technology folks must love monopolies. Otherwise, you wouldn’t help create them.

Sure, you complain about lock-in, vendor arrogance, high costs and all the other woes that come with monopolies and the cozy oligopolies that seem to arise in so many industries — but notably in IT.

I don’t think you’re stupid or naive when you resign yourself to your fate. You are clearly aware of the upside and downside of doing business with dominant vendors. But you’re addicted. Or, in pop psychology lingo, you’re co-dependent.

The easiest explanation is the near-universal wish for standards. Competition — such as railroad tracks with different gauges — can be messy, as we’ve seen again and again. Users and suppliers gravitate toward single standards.

In technology development circles, no one wants to test a variety of devices and platforms, much less develop for all of them. One of my brothers, a software guy, says he’d be happiest — in theory — with just one operating system.

It still seems obvious to me that, in a world where information is the currency of the future, it’s dangerous to allow one company or a small group of companies to control the standards. But it seems less obvious, apparently, to the U.S. government and most buyers of technology.

Monocultures in the physical world are widely understood to be risky. We are moving that way, unfortunately, in things like farming — where a single virus could, in theory, wipe out much of the world’s corn crop in a single season, leading to untold human suffering. Yet our food supply is based on monocultures because they’re more efficient. Today.

And that leads to the other main reason why monopolies, duopolies and oligopolies keep springing up: They’re good business, largely because they’re more stable — temporarily, at any rate — for buyers as well as sellers.

The desire for stability and accountability can be summed up in the once-popular saying “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Substitute Cisco, Microsoft or other big names, and the idea is much the same.

When IBM was absolute master of the IT universe, technology wasn’t changing as quickly as it does today. But even then, buyers were looking for a level of security, an assurance that what they were buying would still be working tomorrow and that someone would stand behind it.

The velocity of technological progress today gives even greater advantage, certainly in the short term, to the dominant companies, and for some of the same reasons. But does it also lead to long-term power? I believe it does, largely because of people’s — and institutions’ — logical aversion to disruption.

The path of least resistance is to buy into whatever is dominant today. That’s a mistake.

I have a policy for my personal technology purchasing. I balance my dependence, supporting nondominant companies whenever possible. I support worthwhile competitors, and sometimes I give up some small conveniences in the process — provided, of course, that the choices I make don’t put me at a serious disadvantage in my work.

That’s one approach. IT can do some of this, but it should employ another tactic, too: Push much harder for open, non-owned standards.

Cost is only one issue. The other is safety. I’m betting that open standards will soon be seen as the best approach for security, an increasingly important notion in a dangerous world. Disregard this at everyone’s risk.