Bringing down a wall

I had lunch with a colleague today and the discussion veered towards relative merits of having “walled gardens” in information systems. Simply put, a walled garden is a closed environment, where the environment owner decides what is allowed into the environment (garden). Most often, the environment owner plays the role of gardener and maintains and enhances the garden all by himself. Occasionally outsiders are allowed entry but what they can do in the garden is rigidly controlled by the gardener-owner. A good real-life version of this metaphor is Apple. For years the Mac OS has been a walled garden, nurtured only by Apple engineers and shutting gate for developers who wanted to build applications on the operating system.

The trend has become a little less draconian lately. Platforms like Facebook are walled-gardens but outsiders can develop widgets in conformation with Facebook’s standards. Now that is a walled-garden too – just that the walls have been pushed back a little. Financial information systems are notorious walled-gardens. Armed with truckloads of historical data that these firms have collected over the years, their barbed walls run pretty high. The competence-to-asset ratio of these firms is dreadfully awful though. Engineers of such organizations are always so busy stitching together myraid acquisitions and sticking band-aids onto gaping wounds that they are left with little time to build smart applications on their assets. And those lofty walls guarding the garden develop cracks. Smaller gardens do come up around these cracks but they don’t hold out an open-plain promise either.

A few years – maybe several years – from now information systems (not only financial) no longer will be walled-gardens. It will take a courageous firm to setup its nursery and say “hey, all you wonderful gardeners – come let’s build something open, wonderful and useful”. A little utopian, the thought but so was that of expecting Apple to open up its i-phone SDK for developers.

Walls envariably come down. Remember the one at Berlin?

Post Script: The views and prognosis above are entirely my own and are in no reflect that of my employer.

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