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|SUBJECT ||Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Power Plays: The Phenomenon of Vendor Lock-in
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From: "Inker, Evan"
Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Power Plays: The Phenomenon of Vendor Lock-in
Date: Wed, 29 Jun 2005 19:15:20 +0100
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Power Plays: The Phenomenon of Vendor Lock-in
By David Adams - Posted on 2005-06-29 14:57:15
at OSNews [http://www.osnews.com/]
Fans of just about anything alternative all seem to suffer from a similar
affliction: a naïve underestimation of the pains of switching. This goes for
U.S. fans of the metric system, alternative fuel proponents, vegetarians,
and yes, OS fanatics. Now, personally I'm all for a lot of those things I
just mentioned, but as a lapsed vegetarian, I know full well how, despite
the advantages of the alternative, sometimes it's hard to switch and easy to
Rather than try to mention all the reasons why it's hard for an alternative
OS to make it in the marketplace, I'd like to focus on one of the main
obstacles to embracing an emerging platform: vendor lock-in. in essence, in
the software world, vendor lock-in is when a customer is dependent on a
particular vendor's product, and the costs of switching from that product
are prohibitively high. Cost of switching may be kept high by various means,
but most of them focus on a lack of compatibility or interoperability, often
One of the classic tricks in the software industry is to keep a lid on data
formats to promote lock-in. Customers will happily input and import data
into a system, but find that exporting the data back out is very difficult,
if not impossible.
In desktop applications, companies do this with document file formats. Users
create a library of files that are only readable by the vendor's
application, resulting in platform lock-in. There's another twist on file
formats too: if you change the formats to not be backward compatible with
older versions of the software, you may be forced to upgrade if you work in
an industry that shares a lot of files, because when people start sending
you files based on the new version, you will need to upgrade to read them.
This tactic rears its head in the OS marketplace when often-exchanged files
such as documents and media files are saved in proprietary formats that are
not readable on an alternative platform. Over time, ingenuity often wins
out, as Mac and Linux machines can now display most files for Windows
applications, but it's a constant struggle.
Thankfully, most customers will not stand for such user-unfriendly tactics,
so most software today offers some mechanism for exporting to interoperable
formats, though in most cases you lose some of the special software features
in the export.
Those special features are a corollary to the data format method of lock-in.
A perfectly legitimate form of "soft" lock-in is for an application vendor
to be constantly introducing new functionality into their programs that are
reflected in the saved files. Old versions of the software and competing
applications will not be able to read the data because they don't offer the
functionality. In this case, the users are locked in if they use those
features. Microsoft and Adobe are especially adept at this method, but it
can be good for the users because the software gets more and more
feature-rich. Of course, a lot of this functionality ends up being
gratuitous, and results in merely a more bloated install, and more
complicated user interface. Application vendors walk a fine line when
attempting this "soft" lock-in.
A European Commission report on Microsoft's business practices quotes a
Microsoft executive in an internal memo, cited in Wikipedia
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_lock-in]: "The Windows API is so broad,
so deep, and so functional that most ISVs would be crazy not to use it. And
it is so deeply embedded in the source code of many Windows apps that there
is a huge switching cost to using a different operating system instead." In
other words, it's easy to write software that's intimately tied to the
Windows OS, and takes more effort to write more-portable software;
therefore, much of the software out there would require extensive rewriting
to work on another platform.
And this does not just apply to off-the-shelf software that you might want
to use. Most of the software written in this world is never sold to anyone.
It's written for in-house consumption. So if a particular company has
written some custom software (and they have the source code and the skills
necessary to port it) they may have relied so heavily on the Windows APIs
while writing it that it would be prohibitively expensive to port it. And
in-house software is more likely to have been written using this
quick-and-dirty method, precisely because it's meant for in-house use.
Of course, offering great developer tools and a deep and wide API isn't
evil. I'd venture to say that the developers for every platform want the
best tools and the most developer-friendly hooks possible. It makes their
job easier. But it also takes a massive expenditure of resources on the part
of the OS vendor to make that possible. If a great API weren't an effective
anti-competitive tool, I wonder if Microsoft would have made it such a
Embrace, Extend, Extinguish
Lock-in is a very old problem - it's as old as commercial software, and
decades ago people realized that one way for users to combat this problem
was to demand and embrace open standards. So software companies "embraced"
open standards. Some of these standards have been very successful, such as
those that the Internet was built on, like TCP. Others, like SQL and HTML
have thrived, but have had various extensions added by vendors that have
threatened to balkanize the standard.
Again, Microsoft is notorious for its practices in this regard. Its attempt
at hijacking Java might have been successful if not for Sun's deep pockets
and willingness to fight in court. It's also been accused of trying to
The most egregious example of trying to press an advantage with HTML,
however, wasn't Microsoft, it was Netscape. Netscape, having created what
was indisputably the best web browser of its time, had designs on
controlling the direction of the World Wide Web. Netscape extended on the
agreed-upon standards for HTML, adding scores of new tags, and popularizing
doing so, totally undermined the standards, and forced other browser makers
to play catch-up. But web developers rejoiced, because they widely believed
that the standard HTML was too constrictive of their creativity. But
Netscape wasn't even an OS vendor, right? No so fast. They actually had
visions of the browser becoming an application deployment platform, which
would have disintermediated Microsoft, so the impetus to be in control of
the standards was there. Ultimately, Netscape's threat to Microsoft was its
undoing, and Microsoft appropriated Netscape's role as hijacker of the HTML
standard, adding DOM and ActiveX to the mix.
Even Open Source software uses the Embrace, Extend, Extinguish model. What
is Linux if not an embrace of all the positive aspects of Unix, including
many of the familiar utilities, along with many useful extensions? And it's
protected by a strict license that prevents the remnants of the commercial
Unix vendors from taking Linux's innovations and rolling them back in. The
consumer is better off in many ways, as most observers would admit that
Linux has achieved a level of widespread acceptance, utility, and, yes, even
uniformity, than Unix had in its many years of existence, pre-Linux. And,
though being free (Gratis) was a major factor in its popularity, it's cost
in relationship to the generally-very-expensive proprietary Unix
hardware-software solutions it replaced places it firmly in the Embrace,
Extend, Extinguish pantheon, since undercutting a competitor's price is one
of the time-honored tactics of this practice. (See: Internet Explorer)
So while E-E-E isn't lock-in per se, its result is a de facto lock-in: as
one piece of software uses an established standard as a wedge into a market,
if it can gain users and bury competitors using E-E-E, it will eventually
reign supreme, leaving users with no alternative. Often, the E-E-E tactic is
followed with our next lock-in method, as the dominant player exploits its
position by ensuring that the major third-party applications for its
platform work only on that platform. Windows-only, Oracle-only,
Photoshop-only, and yes, even Linux-only, applications and extensions are
all too common.
The software world is a symbiotic mishmash of different software with
varying levels of interoperability and dependency. Nothing exists in
solitude. A PC with no software is a doorstop. A kernel by itself is
worthless, an operating system with no applications is useless, but
applications won't run without an OS, and extensions and plug-ins won't run
without an app. Especially in the enterprise computing space, a particular
application will generally be supported only for a particular mix of
necessary software: a particular OS (and even a particular version, which
might be an older one), a particular database, a particular application
server, a particular webserver, a particular ERP system, a particular
accounting system, and so on.
It's difficult and costly to code, test, and support your software with all
the various available versions of the above types of software, so companies
typically pick one or two and focus on them. So companies that achieve
dominance, often find it easy to hold on to that dominance, at least on the
short term, because the major application vendors only work with them. And
these relationships are explicit and often backed by contracts, co-marketing
relationships, revenue sharing, and bundling.
Sometimes, it's not even market dominance that's the impetus for
anticompetitive partnering, but mere shrewdness. IBM could easily have
supported a variety of operating systems for its new PC, or picked a
better-backed one, or written one itself, but it picked a second-hand one
proffered by a young college dropout, and the rest is history.
Very closely related to the previous example is the obvious case of
Microsoft's Windows OS and the thousands of applications that only run on
Windows and nothing else. It's different from anticompetitive partnering
only because there is no formalized relationship, other than the
developer-vendor one. More developers choose Windows-only because it's
cheapest and easiest to focus only on the dominant player. But it's by no
means confined to Microsoft and OSes. In fact, it's one of the most
widespread practices in the industry. Any maker of software that encourages
other developers to make dependent applications is hoping to lock-in some
customers that way.
Peripheral Availability and Drivers
One of the major challenges that an emerging operating system faces is that
of supporting the various peripherals and accessories that a user might
have. Virtually every peripheral in existence supports Windows, and though
some commoditized peripherals like keyboards might be easily supported in an
alternative platform, others, like video cards and printers might be very
difficult, especially when they contain special features that require
proprietary information from the vendor. Even widely-used platforms like
Linux and MacOS suffer from this problem, to say nothing of a marginal
platform like SkyOS or AROS.
There is very little that an emerging platform can do about this. Solutions
include: 1) begging manufacturers to write drivers for your platform; 2)
trying to write them yourself, through various methods of hacker heroism and
brute force; 3) focusing on a small subset of peripherals, perhaps even
manufacturing them yourself, and advising your users to use only those.
Some non-OS platforms have this sort of lock-in. Specialized applications in
scientific, musical, or other niche fields have hardware devices that work
exclusively with particular software.
A closely-related method of lock-in is also probably the oldest. The
earliest computers were all hardware-software combos. In fact, as many
people have pointed out, the "sharing culture" that was prevalent in the
software world before software was widely commercialized emerged because
hardware vendors made their money from hardware, and the software was seen
as almost incidental. But hardware vendors locked their users into their
software because you needed their software to run their hardware. It wasn't
until IBM created the "open" PC platform that it became feasible to write
very low-level software for a platform without the say-so from the hardware
Apple is of course the most notorious practitioner of this method in today's
consumer computing world. If you want to run the Mac OS, you buy a computer
from Apple. Even their imminent move to the x86 platform won't change that.
Look and Feel
As people become accustomed to the way a particular tool works, that
familiarity can sometimes act as a disincentive to switching. For example,
I'm used to driving on the right side of the road. When I went to South
Africa a few years ago, I had a fun time driving on the left. I was even
able to become accustomed to shifting with my left hand. Luckily, the clutch
was still on the left, or I would have been in big trouble. For some reason,
though, in the car I was driving, the turn signal lever was on the "wrong"
side, so whenever I would make a turn, I'd end up turning the windshield
wipers on. Even after I was well-accustomed to driving on the "wrong" side
of the road, and using the "wrong" hand to shift with, I was never able to
kick the habit of using the windshield wiper lever to signal turns. It was
just too ingrained.
Similarly, people have become accustomed to the way their computer's user
interface looks and works, and switching to another platform can be
frustrating. Mac users trying Windows, and vice versa, can be an initial
challenge, despite their similarities. Microsoft knew this. When the first
versions of Windows came out, and were a blatant copy of the Mac's UI, Apple
sued, unsuccessfully, setting a precedent for the un-protectability of look
and feel. As a consequence, many tools for Linux adopt the look and feel of
Windows, or of common Windows applications. Many true believers and UI snobs
decry this, but there's a sound reason behind it -- lowering the barrier to
There's an interesting trend in the computing world that serves to undermine
vendor lock-in, but also enables some scary new forms of potential lock-in
that make all these other ones look like child's play. The internet opened
up the possibility of applications that run on a server far away but can be
accessed by a user over the internet, through a standard web browser. As I
mentioned earlier, Netscape saw this new reality as a way of lessening the
importance of the operating system for much of everyday computing, and so
did Microsoft. If we look at today's world, much of what a computer user
would have used a standalone application for just a few years ago is now
routinely, or even exclusively done online: looking up a word in a
dictionary or thesaurus, finding a map, reading an encyclopedia, browsing a
magazine's archive, even everyday email use, managing photos, keeping a
journal, updating an address book, scheduling.
In fact, almost all of what people regularly use a computer for can be done
today online with hosted applications, even word processing and photo
retouching. Some online applications, like Salesforce.com, have become
fantastically successful commercially, with companies paying relatively
hefty per-seat fees, because they're so good, without all the management
hassles of traditional software.
The scary part is that with the vendor having absolute and total control
over the application, its features, and even your access to it, they're in a
position to keep you locked in like never before. They even have custody of
all of your data in most cases, and in some cases, they have the only copy.
Only time will tell what impact this trend will have on the individuals and
businesses that use these services.
Connection to Proprietary Services
In some cases, software, and even hardware, is usable only when connected to
a vendor's proprietary service. A very widespread example of this is mobile
phone carriers, who sell hardware and software that, for the most part, are
only good for their service. If you stop paying, your hardware and software
But this is the case for other widely-used software, such as, increasingly,
games. Most of today's hottest games are primarily internet-based, and you
play by interacting with other users over the internet. The industry has
been slowly shifting from that multi-player use being a free value-add to
being the only method of playing, and the connection to the online world of
the game, with a monthly fee, is necessary for the game to be played at all.
In most of these cases, the various components, such as the software and the
service (and sometimes the hardware) are seen as inseparable parts of a
complete package, and they are. But they are also an example of the most
successful and complete lock-in.
Ways of Combating Lock-in
So how can customers combat the various forms of lock-in? Well, they've been
trying, with various degrees of success, for decades. The fact is, there are
some forms of lock-in that are especially injurious to the user, and others
that aren't. Some of them, such as the gaming example, are really quite
useful the way they are, are straightforward, and therefore don't call for
any kind of active resistance. If you're not interested in paying the
monthly fee, then buy a different kind of game. Similarly, if you detect
lock-in that you feel might set you up for onerous terms in the future, then
you can vote by not buying or using those products.
However, there are many forms of lock-in that are not so avoidable, and can,
and perhaps should, be resisted. Various tactics have been tried over the
years, and some have worked: Building isolation layers or emulation in
software that breaks down artificial barriers is a high-tech solution with
promise and a storied history. Promoting and defending open standards with
teeth has had success, but only when it's resistant to Embrace, Extend,
Extinguish. Promoting platform-independent development environments like
Java and CGI-based internet applications has worked well, and the attempts
at co-opting popular closed platforms, APIs, formats, or standards, such as
the Mono project or Word or Photoshop file formats is another.
The software industry is pretty unique in the amount of control that a
vendor can exert on its users throughout that user's experience with the
product. Manufacturers of other products can only dream of that control. But
users can, and should, push back when necessary, lest the industry run
roughshod over them. We can't forget that software companies exist first and
foremost to make money now, and set themselves up to make more money later.
Even the free software movement has a larger goal of influence and market
control in which you are a mere pawn. Seeing and recognizing the various
methods of lock-in are the first steps in being a contentious advocate for
your own consumer software rights and forcing the software makers to be
user-centered and look out for your long-term interests.
( Original Story URL at http://www.osnews.com/story.php?news_id=11029 )
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