Value of open standards (in car spares)

While I am one of those who likes the value of (some of) Microsoft’s proprietary standards in software, I learnt the value of open standards in motor vehicle spares when we went on holiday.

When we went on holiday to the Kwazulu-Natal coast (by the Indian Ocean) we took my wife’s Toyota Condor because we had a lot to transport. A few hours out of Johannesburg, in the middle of the Free State province and 40km from the nearest town, the car suddenly lost electrical power and stopped.

Two and half hours later, though, we were back on our way to the coast. The problem was with the car’s alternator, and while it took nearly an hour for the Automobile Association (AA) to get a tow truck to our location, and a half hour to get the car towed to a garage, it took hardly anytime for the repair – the reason is that Toyota parts are readily available in South Africa.

Toyota assembles cars in South Africa and has the largest share of the passenger motor vehicle market. With its local assembly it has also opened the parts market to several manufacturers, effectively making Toyota parts an open standard. Even though we were in a small town in rural South Africa, getting the spare Toyota alternator we needed was not a problem.

Compare that to the situation of people driving several (of the less popular) American or European cars in this country. The only places that can repair those cars – Chrysler, Renault, Volvo, etc – are in the major centres, and it is only there were you can get parts. A break down of those cars in the middle of nowhere means you are well and truly stuck, and will probably require a long and expensive tow.

The experience has made we realise that in this country it is far better to drive one for the cars that are assembled and have larger market share here – Toyota, Nissan – than a fashionable car, like a Lexus or the Renault I used to drive.

I have to complement Microsoft, therefore, on the way it has made its users dependent on its proprietary software. What will it take for other software vendors to get local customers to appreciate the value of open standards in software?

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