When Open is Closed

What would happen to your supply chain if you had to develop the controls, systems, software and communication protocols that interconnect your systems to those of your partners? If there were no "open," i.e., non-proprietary software and systems, how would you manage your material handling processes? How would you obtain the data that you need from those systems?

These are important questions. Recent events hint at a possible trend —a disturbing one. Some lawsuits threaten the future of open systems.

Before we go into detail on those lawsuits, imagine that there are no non-proprietary systems, controls or software. It shouldn’t be hard. About 20 years ago, proprietary systems were the norm.

Remember those days? Processes were not efficient. It took time to obtain data, analyze it and alter processes for a small increment in efficiency.

It took weeks, months, even years to interconnect one system to another brand. It took a staff of engineers, which today, you probably no longer have. It also took a long-term contract with one supplier. That typically involved negotiations and that took time. Plus, the connections were usually problematic. They never worked as well as we envisioned they could. Everything moved slower then processes do today. On top of that, you were usually at the mercy of the one or main supplier, paying the prices they wanted, upgrading on their timetable whenever they introduced a new version. And still their solutions fell just a bit short of what you really needed because no one supplier can provide solutions for all your needs.

With open systems, much of that changed. For one thing, you have a stronger hand at negotiating price for equipment and systems. Connecting equipment from multiple vendors is easier, almost plug-and-play simple. (And it continues to improve.) Data flow more quickly through the systems. You have information faster, and you can use it to change processes rapidly and reap the benefits of better efficiency. And you decide when you need to upgrade your processes.

All of that is at risk now.

Would you purchase a control from a supplier if you knew that you would have to pay a regular license fee to a third party because of an alleged copyright infringement? The fee could tack on thousands of dollars to the total cost of that one piece of equipment over its productive life.

The answer is undoubtedly no. But this is a real case. The customers of Rockwell Automation face just such litigation and costs because one company is claiming patent infringement. This company purchased a group of patents from another company that was a member in an open systems consortium. Allegedly, some of that patented technology may have been used in developing the open technology. There are questions as to whether that technology was used legally or not, but that’s now a matter for courts to decide. (See MHM, Feb., 2003, pg. 16).

Another lawsuit involves Linux. The charge from one company (SCO) against another (IBM) involves breach of contract. Novell is involved, contesting the lawsuit and claiming that it owns the contract rights to this Unix operating system, not SCO.

These are just two prominent lawsuits. Whether they are frivolous or not, at the least, they could significantly delay the use of open technology. It’s doubtful that customers will purchase and install equipment under legal dispute. Thus, your processes won’t benefit from better efficiencies. Supply chains will eventually slow down. Stockholders will be unhappy, and when stockholders are unhappy, "ain’t nobody happy."

Consortiums are supposed to protect and prevent this sort of thing from happening with open systems. Everyone in a consortium is supposed to be open with what they are offering to use in an open product. Everyone is supposed to be up front with who owns what, and whether it belongs to the consortium or to an individual company.

But there’s a certain amount of trust and fair dealing presumed among participants in a consortium. Intellectual property rights are important. Competition is important. So is fair dealing.

Whether it’s because of a slip in memory, or an attempt to restrain competition, businesses do not have the time to waste on this nonsense. Everyone wins if product flows efficiently. Slow the supply chain, even just a little, and everyone loses, including the claimants.

Leslie Langnau, contributing editor [email protected]

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