Modified August 27, 2015


When consumers, producers, or service providers can make two or more devices, systems, or networks work together, the systems are said to be “interoperable.” Interoperability issues often arise when systems offered by different firms are deployed simultaneously, or when both old and new versions of a product from the same firm are deployed. The term is often used in discussing hardware like telephones or medical devices, software, and computer records, but issues relating to interoperability also arise in traditional sectors, such as railroads. Some systems are interoperable by design or even government mandate. These can be built using “open standards” that describe how different products can be made to work together; the standards are “open” in being available for use by any appropriate technology developer. The Internet itself is such a system, supported by the Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) standards, usually shortened to TCP/IP.  Other systems become de facto interoperable as various economic actors independently decide to use compatible technologies or a single technology, like Microsoft Word. Some products are designed to usually disallow interoperability without permission, like Apple’s iPhone.


These issues arise in discussions of interoperability:
  • The role of government in encouraging or mandating interoperability. 

  • How interoperability or a lack thereof affects competition between firms.

  • Problems with competition arising when one firm with substantial market power controls technology needed to support interoperability.

  • The time it takes to achieve interoperability, as individual firms often innovate more quickly than standards organizations.

  • The costs of interoperability (including increased time to market) as compared to the benefits of interoperability (such as an increase in the ease with which consumers can use a product).

  • How technologies for protecting copyrighted works, often called “digital rights management,” affect interoperability.

  • The role of patented or copyrighted technologies and licensing in achieving interoperability.

  • The contribution of interoperability to innovation and economic growth.

  • The interoperability of government systems and public safety technologies.

  • Problems consumers face if they are “locked in” to a system that is not interoperable.

  • Security and privacy problems related to interoperability.
TAP Academics researching interoperability include:
Nicholas Economides of Stern School of Business of New York University examines the links between interoperability and competition.

Neil Gandal of Tel Aviv University looks at how consumers adopt technology, as well as issues involving standard-setting. 

Urs Gasser of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University looks at the relationship between interoperability and innovation.

Marco Iansiti of Harvard Business School examines interoperability issues as they relate to competition between software platforms.

John Palfrey of Harvard Law School writes about interoperability and innovation.

Geoffrey Parker of Tulane University writes about interoperability, innovation, and competition.

Pamela Samuelson of Boalt Hall and UC Berkeley's School of Information writes about intellectual property law and interoperability.

Marshall Van Alstyne of Boston University writes about interoperability and competition.

These sources are a good place to start in understanding interoperability issues. Pamela Samuelson and Suzanne Scotchmer’s paper “The Law and Economics of Reverse Engineering” looks at the legal issues raised by one firm’s efforts to study another firm’s product to figure out how it works. Similarly, Pamela Samuelson’s “Are Patents on Interfaces Impeding Interoperability?” looks at whether or not patents on communications technology makes it harder for firms to build products that work together. Urs Gasser and John Palfrey consider the relationship between innovation and interoperability in “Breaking Down Digital Barriers: When and How ICT Interoperability Drives Innovation.” Alexei Alexandrov explores some advantages and disadvantages of interoperability in “Interconnecting Differentiated Networks.” Ramon Casadesus-Masanell and Francisco Ruiz-Aliseda’s paper “Platform Competition, Compatibility, and Social Efficiency” asks why technology products like Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s iTunes tend not to be interoperable. Thomas Hazlett looks at the impact on consumers of legal rules that require technology to be interoperable in “Modular Confines of Mobile Networks: Are iPhones iPhony?” Thomas R. Eisenmann, Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne explore why some platforms encourage interoperability and others do not in “Opening Platforms: How, When and Why?” Jonathan Zittrain’s blog “The Internet’s Fort Knox Problem” discusses security issues related to interoperability.

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For media inquiries on a range of TAP topics, or for assistance facilitating interviews between reporters and academics, contact TAP@techpolicy.com.

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