Lodahl's blog: Interoperability or compatibility ?

26 August 2007

Interoperability or compatibility ?

The governments are expecting compatibility. But what can they expect to find in the plug-in technology ? Not compatibility, but interoperability and I think they will get disappointed.

Two words that flows around these days are interoperability and compatibility. As a non-native English, I often mixes the two words around and find myself (and others) confused in the discussion. Both words is used to way to describe the situation with two document standards. We need the two standards to be able to work together or somehow get the computer applications to accept both formats.

Is this a question of interoperability or compatibility ?


I decided to try and find out. Any comments are welcome from native English speaking readers. I really would like to know. By the way: Is these words commonly used in your every day life ?

I started to have a look at wikipedia to see if I could get a clue.

The definition of interoperability:

the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged.

This dictionary says: ability of a system (as a weapons system) to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system.

With respect to software, the term interoperability is used to describe the capability of different programs to exchange data via a common set of business procedures, and to read and write the same file formats and use the same protocols.

Okay. Interoperability is when two different things are working together in respect for each other. This sounds like a plug-in to me.

In technology, especially computing (irrespective of platform), a product is said to be backward compatible (or downward compatible) when it is able to take the place of an older product, by interoperating with other products that were designed for the older product.

Forward compatibility (sometimes confused with extensibility) is the ability of a system to accept input intended for later versions of itself. According to the dictionary it means designed to work with another device or system without modification; especially : being a computer designed to operate in the same manner and use the same software as another computer.

Okay, compatibility is when one can replace the other without any problems. This could be a filter plug-in too.

Please tell me if I'm wrong here.

Interoperability is usable in a situation, where you are expecting to convert a number of documents once, and never again. Compatibility is what you need if two standards is 'living together in harmony'.

But how is the actual situation out there ?

From my discussions with Danish politicians this summer and later on some IT guys from several municipals I will claim that the customers is expecting fully compatibility between the two standards. But what is actually happening is a few project trying to get interoperability. Non of the existing projects are expecting MS Word to use ODF format as native format and neither is the plug-in from Novell meant to use OOXML as native file format in OpenOffice.org.

When one vendor overrules an existing document standard and creates a new one for them selves, it shows us that they actually don't want compatibility. And why ? Because if we actually get there one day, the customers can actually make their own choice. By keeping the two formats away from each other, MS is keeping customers locked in with MS Office. Why is MS supporting one of the projects ? Because that way they can control the development process and either directly or indirectly make sure that development is in a slow hurry.

Compatibility will not happen as long as MS don't want it to happen. And the customers that is expecting compatibility will be disappointed, because what they might get is interoperability. Dual standards will not work.

Compatibility can only be reached with one single standard !

By the way, you should read this article by Bob Sutor about Interoperability

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