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Technology Lock-In with the DC Metro

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SmarTrip cardI think that sometimes when technologists make the case for open standards it can seem like a purely theoretical exercise. For most people the downsides to publishing a document as, say, an MS Word file aren't readily apparent. Every computer they've used has had a Windows license built into its price. They've never had a reason to learn how to manipulate text programmatically. Everyone else with whom they exchange files has Word, and the program is pretty well-designed for most office work use cases*. The dire warnings issued by developers just don't seem plausible.

So it's worth taking a second to note an example of these problems happening in a different arena. Here in DC our primary transit agency, WMATA, issues an RFID card called the SmarTrip which works with nearly all of the area's various transit systems. It's quite handy: you don't have to take it out of your wallet to use it, the balance is supposedly loss- and theft-proof, and it automates things like bus transfers.

Unfortunately, this morning brought news that the SmarTrip has to be replaced. Why? Well, the vendor that our transit planners bought it from has gone out of business is ceasing to support the card, and they're pulling SmarTrip into oblivion with them is ceasing to support SmarTrip, and no one else can take their place: the card incorporates proprietary technology, so it's impossible to find a new supplier. WMATA has a stockpile of cards that'll last about two years, but after that it'll have to start using a new solution.

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