Four Pillars: On plumbing and pride and related issues

At a recent conference in Las Vegas, Cisco President John Chambers is quoted as saying “I’m proud to be a plumber“. I wasn’t there to hear what he said, and I haven’t seen any complete transcripts, so I will restrict my comments.

Chambers is also quoted as saying that 40-50% per cent of future productivity gains will come from collaboration, that Cisco is moving from transactional communications to collaboration, and that “the future will be about any time, place, screen, service, device and network”.

So let me get this right. A Because Of company that is comfortable with being a Because Of company. Proud to be plumbers. A company that sees itself as moving from transactional to relational. And a company that sees a high level of agnosticism and freedom in the layers above.

It’s easy to be cynical about large companies. I’m going to give Cisco the benefit of the doubt here, and see what happens. I’m going to believe that they want to be, and to stay, a Because Of company, and that they’re happy selling to everyone in the layers “above”.

Which makes me think about monopolies at the infrastructure level. There is some evidence that monopolies are actually good for you (or at least near-monopolies) when operating as infrastructure. There is some evidence that problems manifest themselves only when the infrastructure player gets bored with being an infrastructure player, yielding one of three bad outcomes:

  • Monopoly Choice: Any colour you like as long as it’s mine. This is where the incumbent provides some facility and prevents the use of competing facilities. Examples would be if Vista blocked the use of iTunes and insisted on WMP only. Or the other way round. Called Choice because it is usually sold as a means of increasing consumer choice. I have never understood that, how they could call it choice.
  • Monopoly Magic: Any colour you like, but mine’s faster. This is where the incumbent provides a facility that always appears to work faster or better than others. In the past I used to understand and tolerate this, muttering to myself “oh well, of course native always works better”. Now I am far more intolerant. Examples would be if Safari worked better than Firefox on OSX. Or MSN Messenger worked well only on Windows family. I used to be able to understand that, but today it gives me a reason to walk away.
  • Monopoly Money: Any colour you like, he who pays the most wins. This is where the incumbent provides tools that allow firms to push the layer of lock-in up a level, such as what was rumoured with the ViiV chip. It is where the monopolist is happy to have a monopolist customer who does not believe in the same principles of platform agnosticism.

I think it’s OK to be a monopoly player in infrastructure, provided none of these three common corruptions are allowed to exist. What Cisco needs to be careful about is Monopoly Money.

In a strange kind of way, this mirrors the opensource movement, and needs to follow the same principles:

  • Concentrate on commoditisation of the infrastructure
  • Move this commoditisation up the stack organically
  • Provide tools to help others continue this movement
  • Ensure that when others use these tools, they have to follow the same principles, akin to GPL

Mr Chambers and Cisco have a real opportunity. I have to believe that they will be looking at tools to do with identity, with authentication and permissioning, with digital rights management. If Cisco can avoid the lock-in minefield and provide tools for these that cannot be used to create lock-in, they would have done the industry and the world a real service.

More later.

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