Friday, February 26, 2010

Are Standards Good for Consumers?

Last week’s Mobile World Congress produced the interesting announcement that a number of industry members are joining together to form an industry association (Wholesale Applications Community, or WAC) dedicated to providing a common application platform for mobile phones. This, combined with Bruno’s thoughtful blog on Apple and Flash/Java got me thinking...

According to the announcement “The alliance's stated goal is to create a wholesale applications ecosystem that – from day one – will establish a simple route to market for developers to deliver the latest innovative applications and services to the widest possible base of customers around the world.”

It is interesting that this is an operator-led initiative; none of the major platform vendors (Apple, Microsoft, Google or Nokia) are currently involved in this. A simple interpretation of this could be that it is an attempt by the operators to reclaim the initiative as the services they provide are effectively commoditised with industry differentiation being provided by the mobile device platforms provided by Apple et al. These mobile device platforms provide the features that enable the rich ecosystem of applications which has created a whole new sub-industry. If the operators don’t get a piece of this, they will be consigned to building masts and sending bills until they go the way of the dinosaurs.

However it also raises an interesting broader technology issue: does the consumer benefit from this standardisation? Discussions about technology standards almost always invoke the example of VHS vs Betamax as the rationale for the consumer benefits of standardisation. However doesn’t standardising the application platform take away the ability of the device manufacturers to differentiate themselves by providing distinctive features? If the argument works for mobile devices, why not for laptops? Desktops? Servers? If it’s such a great idea, why did MSX fail?

To my mind the key difference is whether we are talking about functionality or content. VHS vs Betamax was important to consumers because they wanted a standard content delivery mechanism - as long as the machine could play the content, essentially the functionality of the machine was irrelevant. So standards for defining and delivering content are good for the consumer. (HTML is another good example of this.)

Standards for functionality restrict the features available to consumers, creating monopolies and stifling innovation. This is bad for consumers. Having a diverse market for mobile device platforms is therefore very much to the benefit of consumers. Standardising this platform would be bad for consumers.

By the way, in case no-one told the members of WAC, they are reinventing the wheel - they should check out Java.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Custom Configuration?

One of the trends that I have noticed recently is the number of firms who are challenging the elements of their IT estate that are custom developed or in some other way non-standard. The reasoning goes that anything non-standard costs more to develop and maintain compared to a vanilla out-of-the-box configuration. This is of course quite true but I think there is a more subtle point here.

Against the cost of any element of the IT estate we need to balance the value generated. In general the standard configuration in a packaged application is merely an aggregation of the most common needs of their existing user base. For many sector most firms in the sector will be using the same set of applications, so by adopting a standard configuration, a firm is saying that it is happy to execute its business process in the same way as most of its competitors.

If this business process constitutes a source of differentiated competitive advantage for the firm, by adopting the standard configuration this source of differentiation is being sacrificed and the value delivered by this differentiation lost. In this case firms should think very carefully about the cost of this differentiation versus the value.

If there is no differentiated competitive advantage associated with this business process, it is either a business overhead or a source of cost advantage. Either way the value is not reduced by standardising the business process. So in this latter case it is quite safe to standardise on an out-of-the-box configuration.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Enterprise vs Solution Architecture Reprised

I currently work as an architect with Cognizant’s Architecture Practice within the Advanced Solutions Group. Just before Christmas we had a working session where we got on to the subject of Enterprise vs Solution Architecture. Coming out of this discussion I reached a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, is Enterprise Architecture just Solution Architecture on a larger scale? The answer, somewhat unhelpfully is Yes and No. Recall from my previous blog the time element of Enterprise Architecture. Solution Architecture doesn’t become Enterprise Architecture when it just becomes bigger and/or more complex. However humans typically deal with scale and complexity by breaking problems down. In this context if the Solution Architecture becomes so much more complex it will most likely not be implemented in one go but will be the target of a programme of change. The target and roadmap to achieve that target then becomes the Enterprise Architecture for this programme of change.

This led me to a second conclusion which I have found incredibly helpful when explaining to non Enterprise Architects the distinction between Enterprise and Solution Architects. Most IT people have no problem understanding the distinction between a project manager responsible for delivering a tightly scoped piece of work, and a programme manager, responsible for delivering change over a period of time executed as a series of parallel and/or sequential projects. In this context the appropriate simile is that an Enterprise Architect is to a Solution Architect, as a programme manager is to a project manager.