Virii and Ecosystem Health

I rambled a little yesterday. It’s like that sometimes before 8 am. One of the points I forgot to make in my comparison of IM wars and single sign-on wars is that sometimes keeping a diverse ecosystem is critical to the ecosystem’s health. In English? Two or more strong players in the market are better than one. Common sense, really, except in the computer field, which has for the last ten years had a strong whiff of winner take all about it.

Economists talk about network externalities driving the explosive growth of Windows and of Microsoft Office. A “network externality” is an effect that makes a particular good or service valuable the more other people are using it–at least that’s the common definition.

But I think most people forget that occasionally network externalities can be negative as well as positive. And that’s how we get things like SirCam and other Outlook virii. The Outlook virii bother me because of what they say about email clients. What network externalities can be gained on a large scale from everyone being on just one email client? Within an organization’s firewall, sure, you get value by adding extra components like calendaring (and don’t get me wrong–for corporate email, this is a killer app). But I’m aware of very few companies who extend access to those apps to people outside the firewall. So why does everyone run the same email client?

The real externality in Internet mail is the mail format itself, good old RFC 822. It’s a transfer protocol, just like SOAP. Any client that can speak it can participate in the discussion. If you believe in the logic of network externality, in the email realm there’s no reason that Outlook or any mail client should have the overwhelming market share that it does.

I used to feel fairly secure about email virii. I was the only Mac user in the MBA program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and we used Eudora as the school’s email application. There were always a few people who persisted in using Outlook in spite of the fact that there wasn’t a calendar server anywhere in the school. They spread their fair share of virii, but I was never infected. My diversity protected me. Unfortunately we’re changing over in the fall, largely because of a lack of a unified calendar feature for Outlook. I’m grimly looking forward to discussions with my IT-savvy but Outlook-bigot classmates after the fourth or fifth email virus comes around.

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