What is interoperability and why it is important

What is interoperability

In recent years, Western countries have become aware of the growing influence of Internet giants on several aspects of political and economic life. One of the criticisms made against these large internet companies is their lack of interoperability. This notion, although unfamiliar to most Internet users, is nevertheless decisive in many respects. Since it’s a core value of Mailfence, we invite you to discover what interoperability is and how it influences your life. 

What is interoperability?

Interoperability is the ability of a system or product to work with others spontaneously. In other words, it works without requiring any particular action.

Interoperability is based on existing standards and protocols, which are themselves the result of significant innovation. Interoperability allows you to communicate by phone with someone at the other side of the world. It is possible even if your correspondent’s phone network is not exactly the same as yours. It also work if you both use different brands of smartphones with different operating systems (Android and IOS, for example).

Interoperability is also behind the huge success of email. Indeed, email protocol interoperability means that everyone can send and receive messages regardless of the service they choose.

How does interoperability work?
How does interoperability work?

Why is interoperability a key concept?

Interoperability is important because it allows the interconnection of different products and services from different companies. Interoperability gives you technical eclecticism, whether you are a consumer, a small business or an organization. It expands your range of choice by allowing you to combine a wider and more versatile array of tools fitting your needs.

It also allows creative companies with limited resources to establish themselves on the market with innovative products. Indeed, these companies can rely on existing tools to propose complementary modules without needing to create very elaborate final products requiring a greater technicality. 

As a result, interoperability is a decisive factor for innovation and the improvement of the digital ecosystem. One also designed the Internet with interoperability in mind. Standards have been defined so that individuals and organizations around the world could communicate with each other and freely exchange information and services.

Who are gatekeepers?

Unfortunately, some companies seek to undermine this openness by creating walled gardens. They maintain closed ecosystems in which they control the hardware, the applications or the content. As a result, their users are limited to the services, content and communications provided within these platforms.

These firms, known as “gatekeepers”, use strategies to block other companies from accessing their user base. They may charge their users high fees, rank them less favourably in their search engine results, and control their reputation. These gatekeepers are nothing else than the digital behemoths. They include the GAMAF (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook), but also other Internet giants with huge user bases such as Uber, Twitter and TikTok.

Thus, the owner of an iPhone can only download the applications offered in the Apple App Store. They will not be able to install an application found in Google Play on their phone. A WhatsApp user will not be able to communicate with a Telegram user if this user does not have a WhatsApp account.

What is the network effect?

In a normal situation, any new company can succeed in a given market, even if it is a niche with a very limited number of companies. However, in the digital market, this is no longer always the case, due to scale effects and network effects.

To get the lion’s share of a market, large internet companies provide many services supposedly for free, or at rock-bottom prices in order to build gigantic user bases.

Each new user strengthens the attractiveness of the platform because it extends the number of users one can interact with such as with Facebook. Moreover, by diversifying the platform’s content, it allows the algorithms to refine their selections to offer more relevant content to all users such as in the case of a search engine as Google. Finally, a larger user base encourages the development of new applications such as on the app stores of Android and Iphone .

This virtuous circle for platforms is called “network effect”

In this situation, users are reluctant to switch service provider or platform, as it makes them lose access to the advantages of the network effect.   

In addition, the lack of interoperability of some gatekeepers forces users to reluctantly signup to these platforms because they have a large users base which makes them unavoidable. They feel forced to join them in order to interact with a larger number of people.

Thus, the dominance of these behemoths grows stronger with each new user they sign up. Over time, their power dissuades other players from creating competing services because they know they’ll never attract enough users to make a potential new service attractive and profitable.

The network effect is so effective that even a powerful company can fail to penetrate a market where another player already holds this benefit. Google+ never succeeded in competing with Facebook, and Google had to throw in the towel. Microsoft’s Bing never managed to catch up with Google Search. This hurdle is even greater for start-ups looking to enter these markets. Signal, an end-to-end encrypted instant messaging service, is struggling to gain a foothold because of WhatsApp’s dominance, even though its service offers more value to users than WhatsApp.

Internet users held hostage

As a consequence, the dominant platforms find themselves in a monopoly situation on a market devoid of competition. In this position, it can be tempting to maintain the status quo and not spend any more money on innovation.

Very often, they prefer to consolidate their dominant position or conquer new markets close to the markets they dominate by using the knowledge they have gathered about their users. Therefore, they succeed in gaining a foothold in new markets, even when long-established players held them.

Users are then held hostage with a service that barely evolves, with no option to switch to another. At that point, there is no more obligation for the monopoly to keep prices low or free. Their status as a must-have service allows them to freely fix their prices.

Monopoly or duopoly status is already a given for many major Internet services. In 2019, a UK government study has estimated that the largest or the two largest players in the mobile operating system and online search market took nearly 100% of the UK market share. The share of the two largest social media companies was over 90%. 

One has thus been stealthily modifying the digital landscape. A decade ago, it was common to have an account with at least a dozen different social media. Today, most users of these platforms have only two or three accounts.

Regulators target interoperability

The dominance of the gatekeepers and the pernicious effects it has on the digital marketplace, public order and political life are increasingly alarming regulators in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

A company that dominates its market, thanks to network effects, has no interest in promoting interoperability, and it does not do so spontaneously.

Government intervention is therefore necessary to restore the conditions that will encourage the emergence of competing firms.

Western countries have clearly grasped it. That’s why the European Commission is promoting seamless services and data flows for European public administrations. In December 2020, the EU presented 2 texts, the “Digital Services Act” (DSA) and the “Digital Markets Act” (DMA), which should come into force in 2022. The DSA targets content published on platforms, while the DMA aims to regulate competition on the Internet.

A key concern for Mailfence

Interoperability is one of Mailfence’s core values. It was a determining factor in the design of our solution. Mailfence is designed with built in interoperability so that our users can integrate our service with their favorite tools, without compromising their performance or the scope of their features.

Mailfence email is fully interoperable with any other encrypted email service in the world based on OpenPGP, one of the most widely used email encryption protocol. This ensures a standardized and interoperable competitive environment. The files and keys generated in the program are compatible with all software that supports this standard. It is indeed crucial to insure protection even for the data shared through interoperability, as it’s always been a priority for us.

Mailfence also gives its users full control over their key management and offers complete reversibility. Any user can export their keys and data to any other platform whenever they want.

Mailfence has joined the Coalition for Competitive Digital Markets. The #C4DM is fighting for the Digital Markets Act to impose stricter rules on pre-installed applications, bundling and interoperability (discover our open letter to European regulators here).

Last year, as a member of the Digital SME Alliance in Europe, we already urged MEPs to include ex-ante interoperability requirements for major players in digital services markets benefiting from significant network effects in the next draft law on digital services.

In conclusion, interoperability is a necessary condition to obtain healthy competition, based on the benefits brought to the users, rather than on the size of the provider’s customers base. As such, it provides freedom for Internet users by giving them the power to choose the services they prefer according to their own criteria. It enables the entry of new players on the market and the rise of more innovative, creative and cheaper solutions for the common good.

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– Mailfence Team

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