Your Software Is Belong to Us: What if Every Piece of Software Was a Foreign Language?

Originally published December 11, 2017 in Morning Consult

Imagine a world where someone owns the rights to particular words. Where you can’t use the word “rhinoceros” without a license, though you’re free to make up your own word — maybe “mega-unicorn.” The result would be that we’d all have our own personal language that was close-but-not-exactly like anyone else’s. We’d have difficulty communicating and would need to constantly translate back and forth from speaker to speaker. That inefficiency, as you can quickly conclude, would have a big cost both in time and resources.

In the modern world of software and software-controlled devices, developers write in programming languages and depend on something called application programming interfaces, or APIs, to enable their software to interact with other software and devices. Think of APIs as the shared command vocabulary that allows software to interoperate, the same way a shared language and idioms make it possible for us to communicate efficiently with each other. In the same way, programming languages and their related APIs are the key to writing code that can run on many devices, or that can be understood and re-used by other developers to build ever more complex software systems.

APIs are an especially critical requirement in the emerging “Internet of Things,” the internet-enabled devices that are rapidly entering our homes, cars, cities, and lives. APIs are fundamental to the way that developers write IoT software.

However, the future of APIs is under threat from companies that seek to control them to charge developers for, or prevent them from, making compatible software.

A new report from the Developers Alliance predicts the negative economic impact of threats to interoperability in the IoT space alone could exceed $77 billion in lost economic productivity over the next eight years. This is over and above the uncountable indirect costs and consequences across the broader software ecosystem should developers lose the ability to freely write interoperable code.

With the future IoT market forecast to exceed $267 billion in the next two years, companies large and small are working hard to gain a competitive advantage. That’s why there is a growing concern of litigation by incumbents to control interoperability and thus curtail new entrants and competitors.

Last week, the federal court heard Oracle’s appeal in its long-running litigation against Google for re-implementing the Java programing language and APIs in the creation of Android. Java is the tool developers the world over use to easily code new apps for millions of devices; it is still the No. 1 programming language for apps on Google’s Android. Defending those APIs is why the Developers Alliance filed a brief in the case explaining how interoperability supports innovation.

Were Oracle to win this case, it would be able to control the interoperability of third-party software using the Java language and APIs. The negative impact would go far beyond those developing in Java; it would upend the economics of software development, like a mega-unicorn in a china shop, by jeopardizing the bedrock concept of software interoperability. It would allow a few large companies to lock down and prevent interoperability by controlling APIs and resources currently open to all.

We at the Developers Alliance are not alone in our defense of modern software and the future of IoT. Key software companies like Microsoft and Hewlett Packard, 76 of the world’s leading computer scientists, 42 intellectual property law professors, and public interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge support the ongoing implementation of APIs as permissible, beneficial and fundamental to the software ecosystem.

Without interoperable software, the future and growth opportunity of the Internet of Things is diminished and may be even in doubt, along with the thousands of companies and millions of developers working on IoT projects. If a handful of companies can control the keys to device and software interoperability, we can be certain of slower growth, higher consumer costs, and lost opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators.

We at the Developers Alliance stand united with developers everywhere in asking the courts to defend interoperability and the tremendous benefits it brings to society and the internet ecosystem.


Bruce Gustafson is CEO of Developers Alliance, which advocates on behalf of developers and the companies that depend on them.