Standards, competition, and public software development

by Matthew Gast

Related link: http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/news/transportation/6831579.htm




In October 2000, a Village Voice article described the torturous procurement process for New York City's MetroCard transit pass. I doubt the main storyline is at all surprising, since it's the age-old attempt of proprietary software developers to lock in customers.




In this case, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) contracted out all the development work for a new system to Cubic Corporation. Cubic retained all the rights to the support systems, such as ticket vending machines and fare gates, for the MetroCard. Although there was an initial competitive bid for the system, Cubic owns the rights and therefore only Cubic can perform ongoing maintenence and development. Additional features require contract extensions, as do bug fixes. According to the article, nothing has been competitively bid for a decade. (If that trend continued since the article, it would be 13 years by this point.)




The fundamental problem the MTA faces is that Cubic has an great deal of power as the sole supplier of a proprietary system. Andrew Friedman, the author of the Village Voice article, ends with a discussion of open-source development of transit software as a way for transit agencies to regain some power as buyers.




It's an interesting proposal, but one that probably isn't necessary. Transit authorities need to create some competition in the system. Open-source development certainly creates competition, but so would the development of industry standards. Create a standard fare card reader, and let the developers implement the standards and compete on the quality of their implementations. (I suspect that it is more efficient to have developers competing on standards-based products than to have many public transit agencies the world over getting into the software development business, but that's just an off-the-cuff opinion.)




Customers in the market for network hardware keep their hardware vendors honest by insisting on standards-based products. There is no open-source Ethernet hardware, but there is a whole universe of Ethernet switching hardware, all built to adhere to standards. Discipline comes because customers insist that vendors adhere to the standards. Once the decision is made to move all the data around a network in Ethernet frames, there is a choice of several vendors of Ethernet switches. Standards ensure that buying from one vendor today does not preclude going with another vendor tomorrow if the first vendor screws up, so there is an incentive to continue to serve customers.




Getting standards off the ground will take time, though. (For all I know, public transit agencies may already be thinking in that direction.) In the meantime, though, a second approach comes to mind. Retain rights to the software. I was pleasantly surprised to see this in the paper a few weeks ago. In the San Francisco Bay Area, public transit is a mess. Multiple agencies are responsible for overlapping areas of coverage and modes of transit. Every agency has its own fare structure and transfer policies, so it's often confusing to know what the right fare is and how to buy the right types of tickets. Most other systems throughout the world are simpler: you buy a ticket, and it's good for the whole region. You can even buy unlimited usage tickets that make it possible to transfer between trains and buses with no hassle. The Bay Area has no such integrated ticket, but the Metropolitan Transit Commission is taking baby steps toward it with a universal smart-card based ticket called Translink.




Translink hasn't been without it's setbacks along the way, but at least ownership of the system shouldn't be a particularly big problem. The second to last paragraph says that "[t]he agency [MTC] also owns all the rights to Translink software, which means it could give the system to another operator." We may not have standards keeping the developers honest, but the ability to give the code away should serve the same purpose.




One note on the content: the article describes BART's refusal to participate in the Translink system. BART announced an agreement on Thursday, September 25, three days after the front-page article in the newspaper.


2 Comments

garym
2003-10-19 14:45:49
Too bad it's not criminal
I have no idea how or the legal possibilities of if, but I wonder if there is a case to be made against such practices such that the transit authority could sue for the right to at least license the proprietary standards, and at best, someone should push for a precident that makes it a criminal offense (or at least grounds for a mal-practice suit) to use proprietary standards where open standards exist.


Outside of our software industry, which is so sick and demented it's hard to fathom sometimes why I spent to much time in it ;) I can think of no other industry save possibly pharmaceuticals where an insidious forced lock-in like this -- or, in exactly the same way, the Microsoft Office file-formats that lock nearly every government and business office into merciless licensing and endless forced updates -- if only someone could push for a precident, opensource or proprietary, we would all benefit if, on expiry of any service contract, the bidding can be re-opened for anyone willing to support the open standard.

mgast
2003-10-20 11:51:13
Too bad it's not criminal
> I wonder if there is a case to be made against
> such practices such that the transit authority
> could sue for the right to at least license
> the proprietary standards


I'm skeptical. In fact, retaining rights to the code may be why Cubic could turn in a low bid. Everybody else offered rights to the code at the end of the project, but Cubic undercut them because they knew that holding the code in the long term would give them a hammerlock on future development work.


> someone should push for a precident that makes
> it a criminal offense (or at least grounds for
> a mal-practice suit) to use proprietary
> standards where open standards exist.


Fortunately, buyers everywhere are getting savvier about standards. Customers are getting involved in the standards bodies like the IETF and various industry fora to ensure that standards serve them as well as the vendors. It seems like part of the problem in the MTA's case is that there are no standards for them to choose from.