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Interoperability, Not Standards
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Interoperability Can Proceed by Pairwise Cooperation

Standardization requires group definition -- interoperability can proceed with just a handshake between two teams or even two individuals -- and by allowing this kind of pairwise cooperation, interoperability is more peer-to-peer in spirit than standardization is. By growing out of a shared conversation, two projects can pursue their own design goals, while working out between themselves only those aspects of interoperability both consider important.



This approach is often criticized because it creates the N2 problem, but the N2 problem is only a problem for large values of N. Even the largest P2P category in the O'Reilly P2P directory -- file sharing -- contains only 50 entries, and it's obvious that many of these companies, like Publius, are not appropriate targets for standardization now, and may not even be P2P.

For small numbers of parallel engineering efforts, pairwise cooperation maximizes the participation of each member of the collaboration, while minimizing bureaucratic overhead.

Interoperability Can Proceed Without Pairwise Cooperation

If a protocol or format is well-documented and published, you can also create interoperability without pairwise cooperation. The OpenNAP servers adopted the Napster protocol without having to coordinate with Napster; Gnutella was reverse-engineered from the protocol used by the original binary; and after Jabber published its messaging protocol, Roku adopted it and built a working product without ever having to get Jabber's sign-off or help.

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Likewise, in what is probably the picture-perfect test case of the way interoperability may grow into standards in P2P, the P2P conference in San Francisco was the site of a group conversation about adopting SHA1 instead of MD5 as the appropriate hash for digital content. This came about not because of a SHA1 vs MD5 Committee, but because Bitzi and OpenCOLA thought it was a good idea, and talked it up to Freenet, and to Gnutella, and so on. It's not clear how many groups will eventually adopt SHA1, but it is clear that interoperability is growing, all without standards being sent down from a standards body.

Even in an industry as young as ours, there is a tradition of alternative interfaces to file-sharing networks for things like Mac, Linux and Java clients being created by groups who have nothing more than access to publicly published protcols. There is widespread interoperability for the Napster protocol, which is a standard in all but name, and it has approached this state of de facto standardhood without any official body to nominate it.

Interoperability Preserves Meaningful Work

The biggest advantage of pursuing interoperability is that it allows for partial or three-layer solutions, where interested parties agree to overlap in some but not all places, or where an intermediate layer that speaks to both protocols is created. In the early days, when no one is sure what will work, and user adoption has not yet settled any battles, the kludgy aspects of translation layers can, if done right, be more than offset by the fact that two protocols can be made interoperable to some degree without having to adjust the core protocols themselves.

What Is Needed

To have standards, you need a standards body. To have interoperability, you just need software and conversations, which is good news, since that's all we have right now.

The bad news is that the conversations are still so fragmented and so dispersed.

There are only a handful of steady sources for P2P news and opinion: this site, Peerprofits.com,, the decentralization@yahoogroups.com mailing list, the P2P Working Group and a handful of people who have been consistently smart and public about this stuff -- Dan Bricklin, Doc Searls, Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer and Jon Udell. While each of these sources is interesting, the conversation carried on in and between them is far from being spread widely enough to get the appropriate parties talking about interoperability.

As a quick sampling, Openp2p.com's P2P directory and Peerprofit.com's P2P directory list about 125 projects, but only 50 groups appear on both lists. Likewise, the Members List at the P2P Working Group is heavy on participating technology companies, but does not include Freenet, Gnutella, OpenCola or AIMster.

The P2P Working Group is one logical place to begin public conversations about interoperability, but it may be so compromised by its heritage as a corporate PR site that it can never perform this function. That in itself is a conversation we need to have, because while it may be premature to have a "Standards Body," it is probably not premature to have a place where people are tying to hammer out rough consensus about running code.

The decentralization list is the other obvious candidate, but with 400 messages a month recently, it may be too much for people wanting to work out specific interoperability issues.

But whatever the difficulties in finding a suitable place or places to have these conversations, now is the time for it. The industry is too young for standards, but old enough for interoperability. So don't think about standards yet, but whatever else you think about, think about interoperability.


Clay Shirky writes about the Internet and teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He publishes a mailing list on Networks, Economics, and Culture at shirky.com/nec.html.




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