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A History of Vendor Lock-In

  • Jan 2015
  • History, Technology
  • 10
  • 12
Dubious Tech Practices A history of Vendor Lock-in

As the owner of a technology based company, nothing irritates me more than vendor lock in, ok well perhaps patent trolls do, but after them its definitely vendor lock in, a dubious practice which wins its practioners no fans, even if it does make more money.

Vendor lock-in is when businesses selling products or services make it so that their customers have no other option than to continue using their products or services.

Vendor lock-in has always been a problem (or, if you’re a vendor, a source of profit) in the high-tech industry, even more so than in other industries.

One reason this is the case is because high-tech products are comparatively expensive, which prevents businesses from trying out the same kind of products from multiple vendors, or from switching to a different vendor’s product shortly after buying (and being dissatisfied by) the same kind of product from a different vendor.

Another reason is that some high-tech products—and many of the most successful ones—are expressly designed to create vendor lock-in.

And the reason that customers and competing vendors can’t easily get around successful attempts to create vendor lock-in is because the high-tech industry relies heavily on standardization and compatibility.

A vendor could easily release a low-cost operating system that has many of the same features as Microsoft Windows, for example, but because the OS isn’t exactly Microsoft Windows, and so isn’t compatible with the millions of applications and several important file types available on Windows, very few people are going to switch to it.   

Cost was a bigger factor in vendor lock-in back in the early days of the 1950s through the 1970s than it is today, back then computers cost millions of dollars each.

Companies couldn’t just buy a new computer if they didn’t like the one they had, and had to buy all of their replacement parts, accessories, and services from the same vendor that sold them the computer.

Programming languages and operating systems also resulted in vendor lock-in, since at the time they were usually compatible with only a single computer model.

Many businesses had their programs written (and their personnel trained) in the one programming language or for the one operating system that their computer was compatible with, so it was generally a prohibitively costly and complex process to switch from one vendor’s computer to another’s. 

The vendor that was guilty of relying on vendor lock-in to boost sales the most in the early days of computing was IBM, whose products were often only compatible with other IBM products, and who would refuse to provide support for its own products if other vendors’ products were included in the same setup.

The vendors that are most associated with vendor lock-in shenanigans these days, meanwhile, are Microsoft and Apple.

Microsoft is known for making applications designed for its Windows operating system difficult to convert to other operating systems, and for making the file types associated with its Microsoft Office Suite incompatible with other business productivity applications.

Apple products, meanwhile, are for the most part only compatible with other Apple products (Apple-compatible applications can’t be installed on non-Apple devices; Apple devices can only be managed using Apple software; media purchased in the iTunes store can only be accessed from Apple devices or software, etc.).

A new frontier in vendor lock-in has opened up recently, too, as many businesses have begun to move their IT infrastructure and applications to the “cloud.” The vendor lock-in risks with cloud computing are that it can be disruptive and costly to move IT resources from one cloud to another, and that some cloud computing platforms are incompatible with each other.

The risk of vendor lock-in with cloud computing is still low at this stage, though, because there are so many different cloud computing services available and a Windows-like standard cloud platform has yet to emerge—so customers can still avoid or walk away from cloud vendors that attempt to limit their options.

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