Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hetero-Genius

In the November issue of Computer, there is an interesting article from David Alan Grier, titled "The Benefits of Being Different", which talks about a subject I am currently particularly sensitive to: the dangers of uniformity in IT systems.

My reflection started a few weeks ago when IEEE Spectrum published a seminal article (Shrink the Targets). Indeed, after the rise and establishment of Microsoft supremacy on personal computers, we are in a great need of diversity because homogeneity has many hidden catches we have to pay one day or the other.

Homogeneity makes IT systems fragile because the same flaw or weakness is reproduced on hundred of thousands (if not millions) of machines, making all of them sensitive to a well targeted attack. The discussions about the superiority of a particular OS or tool (like a browser) that end up with plans for the worldwide replacement of one by another, are childish and futile. All these pieces of software have reached such a great level of quality that you can not select them on pure technical basis. So there is no supremacy to target, as replacing one domination by another one, would leave us with a situation as fragile as before. We must see the advent of non-geeky tribes who will recognize themselves in the usage of a particular combination of OS and tools, who will be empowered so they can assume their choice without being exposed to nasty technical problems or being pointed as originals.

Homogeneity carries another risk: the supremacy of a particular tool or vendor always induce the usage of proprietary file formats. Being locked-in a vendor tool because its features are so above the competitors is nothing bad: it benefits the user and, moreover, it never lasts. Competition always catch up. Then open source tools come in, disrupt the model and force everybody to think harder about increasing the quality of the tools and the services that gravitate around them. But being locked-in because your own personal data are locked-in a proprietary file format is nothing that can be accepted anymore. Diversity forces vendors and tool makers to enable data exchange, freeing the content that was held captive.

In a time when our most precious material assets are mainly digital (does not this feel like a quasi oxymoron?), homogeneity is no longer an issue. Let us be hetero-genius!

2 comments:

alex said...

David,
Excellent post. Your points are very interesting.

In fact I personally believe that excessive standardization actually does more harm than good. It's something that you can ind in:
- finance, where theory shows how diversification allows the owner of a portfolio to achieve a better risk-return combination (which is one of the reasons why mutual funds and other similar investment vehicles are so successful)
- biology, where diversity is the guarantee that some form of DNA sequence will be either suited or close to the mots suitable sequence if major changes happen in the environment (which is why genetically (over-)engineered crops and animals may not always be a good idea)
- society, where the excessive desire for sameness always breeds disasters (e.g. Nazism, Stalinism...)
- business, where mixed teams combining men and women and people from different cultural and social backgrounds are shown to perform better than teams built on the basis of standard products (i.e. mass produced conformists coming out of conservative business schools)

There are many other fields and my purpose is not to list them all. I only argue that a balance is to be found between diversity and standardization to achieve performance and harmony.

David Dossot said...

I can only agree with your remarks. I have limited my discussion to IT concerns only but I am convinced diversity has positive outcomes in many aspects of life.