Jun 30, 2005

Power Plays: The Phenomenon of Vendor Lock-in

Source: OS News
Written By David Adams

While note directly related to Photoshop, the concept of Vendor Lock-in may ring a bell when trying to understand why the camera manufacturers seem to be so reluctant to let go of proprietary and undocumented file formats. Interesting reading on that basis.

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 go back.

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 intentional.

Data Formats

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.

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