The Value Proposition of (Gasp!) Vendor Lock-In

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

I generally hate vendor lock-in when it comes to computers. In fact, a quick search through the archives shows that I have mentioned it at least twenty-one times. My primary reasons for disliking the practice is primarily because most computer and software vendors seem (1) intent on making it more difficult to use things from other vendors than it should be (Thanks, Pragmatism!), and (2) a little bit too eager to make unnecessary, faddish changes that can really goof up a work flow:

Image by Igor Son, via Unsplash, license.
Unfortunately, delicious was sold to Yahoo and later on to AVOS. They decided to transform the perfectly working social bookmark web service to something different. The beloved Firefox plugin stopped working some day. The new delicious did not please me at all, ruining my perfectly functioning work-flows I enjoyed for years.
See also Windows 8.

So, as someone with a fairly unusual work flow, I avoid vendor lock-in like the plague because I value (a) flexibility with things that don't matter that much to most other people, and (b) a framework that will not change enough to disrupt my "roll your own" software/work flow ecosystem -- or at least be adaptable enough for me to roll some changes back. (If you're really curious, you can find my software selection criteria a few paragraphs into this post.)

All that said, I am not blind to the value of vendor lock-in, which could potentially be executed in a long-range, non-faddish way. Apple seems to come close with its personal electronics. (Even planned obsolescence fits in here, by indirectly reducing costs for customers who don't want to fiddle with things to make them work. Having fewer models to maintain is cheaper.)

My wife has no desire to goof around with Linux like I do, and yet she benefits from the very "walled garden" so many open source enthusiasts dislike Apple for: Her iPhone, iPad, and Watch work together seamlessly, for example. The fact that the company designed and covers most of the administrative load behind making all of these devices work saves her lots of time and frustration. She loses flexibility in some matters I would find unacceptable, but those things don't matter to her.

In sum, I see vendor lock-in as a kind of trade-off, although it is one that is not readily apparent because most people use computers like my wife does, and not the way I do. So, as far as most people are concerned, this is just "the way things are" for computing.

But the name should not fool the vendors. The very last sentence uttered by the man in the Windows 8 video, "Are they trying to drive me to Mac," reveals that even the least sophisticated user will bolt if a product becomes sufficiently difficult to use. It may be possible to get away with some sleazy practices to make it hard for customers to switch, but there are limits.

The best way by far to "lock in" repeat business is to consistently offer high value.

-- CAV

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