Thursday, January 5, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

A Meditation on Modularity and Integration

With the CES in full-swing in Las Vegas and the "gee whiz, isn't this stuff cool" stories, the question all these would-be digital age titans are chasing is: what do consumers want?

As a professional consumer and non-technoid gadget freak, I'll tell you what I want: seamlessly integrated, intuitive, plug-and-play platforms. That's why I am writing this blog on a powerbook, enjoy the iPod, despite the price premiums for both. Apple accomplishes this consumer-friendliness and commands its premiums by pursuing a heretical strategy to openness devotees: its platforms are relatively closed and rather tightly integrated. That way it gets to ensure interoperability and seamlessness in its products. It also compels competition against its entire platform -- vertically and horizontally.

In the meantime, this Christmas season I also took the plunge into HDTV and surround sound. By contrast, this is an extremely modular setup -- the TV, the surround sound, the cable box, the DVD player and the XBox. I am proud to say after two weeks work, I have it down to two remote controls from four; that everything runs through the surround sound system except the Xbox (for which I am still waiting for the right cables), and that my wife only erupts in fury only twice weekly because she can get Oprah's sound but not the picture. In truth, it is a beautiful looking and sounding system, but its lack of integration and extreme modularity are impediments to its enjoyment. Now, I concede the separate innovation of the TV and various modules might be individually better than if done by a single company on an integrated platform. But that integration is an enormous consumer value in itself. (I really fear the day when my in-laws come over to babysit when my wife and I go out -- they will be watching the Xbox game my kids are playing, listening to a DVD soundtrack over the TV speakers and piping in the cable sound through the surround system.)

Now, there will always be a long tail of experts, hobbyists and ideologues who demand complete modularity and openness. They are purists in the sense that they provoke innovation, but can also be blinkered by their expertise and snobbery.

The point here is that there are trade-offs between openness and modularity, on the one hand, and integration and closed-ness, on the other. There ought to be no a priori preference for one or the other. Anyone who says otherwise is a proto-fanatic or a rentseeker.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 10:57 AM | Broadband , Innovation , Internet , Interoperability , Software