What Does Interoperability Mean?

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The primary challenge to marketing a complex product, at least in our industry, is education. Communicating to a customer just how your wonderful offering will solve their problem is a non-trivial task for any piece of software more complicated than Google’s Search. Which explains why marketers act like metal filings around a magnet when they perceive that a term or a technology are having some success transcending the barriers of customer comprehension.

From compliance to SOA to cloud, our industry regularly overburdens what should be simple descriptive names with baggage they were never meant to – and should not have to – bear. And from the looks of it, interoperability may be next.

It might seem strange that interoperability – as unsexy a feature as there ever was – would suddenly become the apple of the marketing departments eye, not least because consumers are increasingly gravitating towards products for which a degree of interoperability is assumed; think Apple’s iPod, iPhone, Mac combination. But then consider that, as I told a few media outlets this week, heterogeneity is the rule of the day. And that interoperability is not.

Far from it.

Such was the criticism I heard of this week’s curiously timed Microsoft / Red Hat interoperability announcement. In case you missed it, the news is essentially this: Windows Server guests are welcome on RHEL, and RHEL guests are welcome on Windows Server. Additionally, technical support will be coordinated.

While some have argued that this is mildly shocking news – Red Hat the pure play open source stalwart, Microsoft the bearer of the proprietary software flag – I do not concur. Red Hat, after all, has historically had fewer issues with Microsoft than, say, Sun, whose former CEO made needling Ballmer and Gates a sport. But more, this is to my way of thinking simply business as usual in these buyer’s market days in which interoperability has been transformed from feature to table stakes.

The question on many people’s minds, however, is what, precisely, interoperability will come to mean even as it’s increasingly valued. The inbound questions we fielded on the Microsoft / Red Hat news are yet more evidence of that, as the term itself – while generally descriptive – lacks substance and meaning at fine grained levels. There are many different kinds of interoperability, after all: that which can be made to work together being very different from that which just works together, and so on.

If we are to avoid a decline in the utility of the term interoperability, it is imperative that those who would use it to their employer’s benefit – that would be you, marketers – be very specific about what is in fact interoperable. While this may seem an unrealistic desire, given the propensity of some marketers to blindly and bluntly wield the terms (read: tools) at their disposal, the fact is that the same customer demand that is inflating the value of the term interoperability may help shield it from gross misuse.

The customers that I speak with, as well as the media, are all asking the right questions: how is this interoperable, where is this interoperable, and what does that actually mean? They might not always like the answers they’re getting, at this point, because vendors for too long have considered the ability to play nicely with competitive products a nice to have rather than a need to have, but as long as they keep asking it we’ll make progress.

And we may just be able to save the term while we’re at it.


  1. “Interoperability” is the new caek. The old caek was “standards”.

  2. Simon beat me to it and I was going to say that ‘interop’ is just a two-party ‘standard’. It’s a scam ‘standard’.

  3. you’re right, “heterogeneity is the rule” simply because it’s a reality. So yes, interoperability, often seen as an “unsexy” feature, is actually a strong requirement. And yes, beyond the hype & marketing use of the “interoperability” vendors are making progress, including Microsoft (my employer).

  4. […] got it right as well. He realises that interoperability is just a weasel word. It might seem strange that […]

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