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FHIR and the cost of standardization

posted Jul 7, 2014, 10:54 PM by Chandan Datta

In an article about FHIR, Eliot Muir is quoted as saying:

Not everyone is enthusiastic about FHIR. Eliot Muir, CEO of the Toronto interface engine developer Interfaceware, was initially quite positive about the FHIR standard “since at a high level the message is very positive,” but he says that when you look closely the standard is too complex and overly prescriptive. “I think manufacturers and software companies can build better RESTful web service APIs into their products, which will be simpler and more cost-effective that trying to follow the FHIR standard,” Muir says. “My own economic interests are served best in an environment with lots of APIs with useful data, which increases the usefulness of good integration technology. Clunky standards inhibit my business model.”

This is pretty much what Eliot said to me personally. And really, this is the core of the standards problem. If the vendor develops something bespoke, something that matches their internal model exactly, then of course that will be simpler and more cost-effective – that is, for the vendor, the first time.

But it’s not good for their customers – every one of them will now face an integration problem, where different vendors who produce different products with different APIs need to be integrated. They’ll have different information models, implicit business processes, business events, and transaction boundaries. Really, the vendor is simply engaging in moving complexity around – that is, externalising the cost to their customers.

It makes for a good sales price, but their customers will pay more overall. So in the end, vendors are driven to come to HL7 to collaborate and drive their customers costs down. Unless, that is, they can capture the market and overcome the cost a different way – but they will have an epic challenge to maintain that approach. I find it interesting to see how the old Apple and the new Apple have a different approach to standards – it really does make a difference to your bottom line, even if many people wish it were otherwise.

If the venders externalise the cost of interoperability to their customers, then the beneficiaries of that are businesses that help customers with integrating data – that is, interface engine companies. Like Interfaceware. So when Eliot says “My own economic interests”, he’s speaking the truth, but he’s not talking about his customer’s economic interests at all.

Actually, though, Eliot is wrong at the end: Clunky standards empower his business model, because people can’t make them work well. On the other hand, good standards – ones that vendors can use well – that’s what threatens Eliot’s business model. And that’s what we’ve tried for with FHIR.

So why do some interface engine companies support FHIR? I guess because selling interface engines is only part of their business, and they are more aligned with their customer’s interests.