Ecosystems, openness, and other IT definitions you should care about

In my last blog I identified four major IT “ecosystems” that are proving to be fertile grounds for emerging technologies. I went on to identify some of the key technology areas that are important to these ecosystems. I also likened an ecosystem to the whole product model that was described in Geoffrey Moore’s books.

Recently, I got into a discussion at an IoT seminar about what an ecosystem is, and whether the term Internet of Things is a separate ecosystem or is really just semantics (the implication being that it is of no real value to those busy, real systems).

I have also noticed various articles extolling the virtues of openness, especially as it relates to open source software. Is this another case of semantics gone wild?

So, in this blog I thought I’d try to put forward a few of my own thoughts on the topic of definitions, with a focus on open ecosystems in particular.

What is an ecosystem?

One definition for ecosystem is “a complex network or interconnected system.

The Financial Times of London describes a Technology Ecosystem in more detail as:

“Product platforms defined by core components made by the platform owner and complemented by applications made by autonomous companies in the periphery.

These ecosystems offer solutions comprising a larger system of use than the original platform owner created to solve important technical problems within an industry. 

In successful technology ecosystems, it is easy to connect to or build upon the core solution in order to expand the system of use and allow new and even unanticipated end uses. 

The core firm’s product has important but limited value when used alone but substantially increases in value when used with the complementary applications.

Technology ecosystems include well known smart phone platforms, such as Apple and Android, but are also common in gaming consuls and social media platforms. They exist in industrial sectors, where core products in software, manufacturing or scientific machinery nourish an extended community of service organisations that operate as semi-autonomous, value-added re-sellers.”

I believe that the four “Internet of XYZ” ecosystems I identified in my last blog would easily qualify based on this description. I also believe the whole product model does appropriately describe an ecosystem, especially over time when a technology leader takes on “gorilla” status.

However, many of today’s emerging IT technologies could also be labelled as ecosystems (such as the smartphone referenced by the Financial Times above). But it could also be argued that nothing is an ecosystem until the “petals” on the product flower have been reasonably well developed.

Defining the word ecosystem seems important to me, but is it just an academic discussion that has little to no impact? One thing I have learned is that it’s hard to develop standards (and procurement documents) for something that hasn’t been defined.

What is openness?

Another widely used term is “open” with the underlying concept being called “openness.”

I remember that “open” once meant that one system could interconnect to another system with useful results (called interworking). This used to be called “open systems interconnection” and may have actually included what was one of the first technology reference models.

Today, the most popular use of the term is for open source software. According to the term “open source” refers to something that can be modified and shared because its design is publicly accessible. They also state:

“While it originated in the context of computer software development, today the term ‘open source’ designates a set of values—what we call the open source way. Open source projects, products, or initiatives are those that embrace and celebrate open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.

Open source software is software whose source code is available for modification or enhancement by anyone.”

An open system, on the other hand, is defined by Wikipedia as:

“Computer systems that provide some combination of interoperability, portability, and open software standards.” (It can also refer to specific installations that are configured to allow unrestricted access by people and/or other computers; this article does not discuss that meaning).

In this case the definition does have more specific meanings and a more concrete impact on developers and suppliers. Open source software is not owned by a single provider and is licensed differently from vendor proprietary software.

What is the Internet of Things?

Here’s another example: the Internet of Things. What do you think of when you hear that term used? Do any two organizations have the same concept or vision for IoT (yet)?

Here’s a couple of thoughts:

  • Is the Internet really necessary for IoT? For example, if a factory floor connects robots wirelessly to a local system but is not connected to the Internet, is that IoT?
  • Do IoT “things” include people (such as identities, or just the things they are wearing), smartphones (which may need to communicate to a cloud for reasons other than human interaction), or virtual servers (which need to be monitored by an OSS)?
  • Are cloud services necessary for a complete IoT solution? Are analytics? Are sensors?

Another example that may be closer to home: does the automatic patching of a PC by Microsoft (without human involvement) represent an IoT machine-to-machine application?

The currently popular definitions for IoT appear to be quite fuzzy and all encompassing, which makes producing open industry standards difficult. Perhaps this is why a reference model is often the first step in the process of developing standards.

The IEEE is working on an architectural framework for IoT in its Project P2413. The ITU has an IoT global standards initiative. The OMG, the IETF, ETSI and the ISO are also actively involved in IoT standards. New consortia are also popping up to add to the “standards stew” – the Open Connectivity Foundation, for example.

Why are definitions important?

Many people claim that creating definitions for IT is just an academic exercise.

Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that definitions have their place and can be useful, even if only to kick start the standardization processes. Whether the standards that result are useful or not is a topic for another blog!

This is what I think; your views are also important, especially if you share them with us.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Don Sheppard
Don Sheppard
I'm a IT management consultant. I began my career in railways and banks after which I took up the consulting challenge! I try to keep in touch with a lot of different I&IT topics but I'm usually working in areas that involve service management and procurement. I'm into developing ISO standards, current in the area of cloud computing (ISO JTC1/SC38). I'm also starting to get more interested in networking history, so I guess I'm starting to look backwards as well as forwards! My homepage is but I am found more here.

Featured Download

IT World Canada in your inbox

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Latest Blogs

Senior Contributor Spotlight