Openness in Software

The New York times had a fascinating article on the state of car software and how hideously dangerous it can be.  Here is the article.  I find there is a parallel with the power system and a lesson to be learned, or for some reminded and reinforced.  As more software gets integral to the operations of the “digitized grid”, it is fair to assume that the situation will be quite similar.

Indeed there are tremendous benefits from these software and there is no reason to turn back. But the biggest problem is that we don’t know what is inside, what the code does. Problems that are emerging are of unprecedented proportions and enterprise threatening There is a level of opaqueness that makes this problem most concerning. We don’t have any idea what the code is doing behind the scenes. Most of these are closed and not known to the industry. Companies have historically cited proprietorship and treated these artifacts as a source of competitive advantage.  This will sound familiar to those who are wrestling for open standards and interoperability.  Open standards not only allow more transparency but it also allows for issues and problems to get detected and even solved. As complexity grows, relying on the manufacturer solely is not enough. Not that the manufacturers are not well intended but it is just too huge to have a systemic view and postulate all the possible cases, even the ones that are unintended cases. This is part of the silo effect that Gillian Tett explains in her book.

Openness in software cannot be just viewed as a threat to competitive advantage. Getting hacked, recalling products and systems to patch software and paying a fortune in fines or damage claims, whenever a violation or non-conformance comes to light are what can erode company profits and pose serious threats to its existence.

Companies across multiple industries need to think about the real consequences and heightened risks of closed systems. It is time that the old myths are done away and the antidotes to the challenges of the new reality instituted.