Saturday, December 02, 2006


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!