Breaking Down Digital Barriers: When and How ICT Interoperability Drives Innovation

33 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2008

See all articles by Urs Gasser

Urs Gasser

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

John G. Palfrey

Harvard Law School


Interoperability, like openness, is something that we generally think of as a good thing in the context of information and communications technologies (ICTs). One of the reasons why we tend to like interoperability is that we believe it leads to innovation, as well as other positive things like consumer choice, ease of use, and competition. In this study, we have done a deep-dive on three cases - DRM-protected music, Digital ID, and Mashups in the Web services context - as well as cursory reviews of other narratives with a goal of understanding a range of views on how interoperability comes to pass, what is optimal in terms of interoperability, how interoperability relates to innovation, and how we ought to approach achieving greater interoperability. Our research suggests that these inclinations about interoperability are on the mark in a general sense, but that the picture is filled with nuance. Interoperability does not mean the same thing in every context. Interoperability is not always good for everyone all the time. And the relationship between interoperability and innovation, while it likely exists in most cases, is extremely hard to prove.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to achieve interoperability in the ICT context. There are a range of approaches that have relative merits depending upon the circumstances: efforts within a single firm to interconnect products or within firms; collaboration between or among two or more firms; standards processes, including open fora and ad hoc cooperation; and a wide range of roles for governments, most of which are ex post rather than ex ante modes of regulation. In various contexts, one or more of these approaches may be the best suited to accomplishing the goal of interoperability and the relevant subsidiary goals (Not surprisingly, European attitudes toward the mode of accomplishing interoperability are quite different from American inclinations).

Our conclusion is that interoperability generally supports innovation in the ICT context, but that the relationship between the two is highly complex and fact-specific. We conclude also that the best path to interoperability depends greatly upon context and which subsidiary goals matter most, such as prompting further innovation, providing consumer choice or ease of use, and the spurring of competition in the field. We conclude further that the private sector generally ought to lead efforts in interoperability, with the public sector ready either to lend a supportive hand or to determine after the fact whether the market has failed in a way such that state action is the best means of rectifying the problem. In many instances, a blended approach - involving one or more approaches concurrently - may be optimal. We recommend a process solution for considering which approach or approaches makes the most sense in a given context.

We also highlight the issue that sustaining interoperability - not just establishing it in the first instance - is a key place to focus attention. Our case study of mashups points to the concern that the most informal arrangements in the context of Web 2.0 functioning as a kind of operating system may lead to problems in the future if not stabilized in some fashion.

Keywords: interoperability, technology, ict, innovation, drm, identity, digital, mashup

Suggested Citation

Gasser, Urs and Palfrey, John G., Breaking Down Digital Barriers: When and How ICT Interoperability Drives Innovation. Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2007-8, Available at SSRN: or

Urs Gasser

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States


John G. Palfrey (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1545 Massachusetts Avenue
Areeda Hall 511
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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