In Defense of Technology Lock-In

Microsoft Word .DOC
I’m going to do the unthinkable. I am going to actually defend the practice that many consider “anti-competitive”, the practice of so called “vendor lock-in” often employed by technology companies such as Apple and Microsoft.

In a nutshell the practice of lock-in involves building pieces of technology that work only in certain predefined circumstances and interoperates with only a selection of other technology. A typical example are proprietary file formats which are designed to work only with the software sold by the same company that created the file format. The obvious purpose of this is to coax a customer into that company’s ecosystem by making it practical to do so, and impractical to switch to the competition.

There are two reasons why I am attempting to defend this practice. First is the almost universal unquestioning of the idea that lock-in is always a bad thing, or even something evil. Perhaps by questioning it we may find insight that we would otherwise never have. In that sense, you could at the very least see this defense as playing the devil’s advocate.

The second reason is a personal change of perspective on the whole issue of open vs. closed that has been evolving since my departure from the purist Free Software ideology. This is almost completely based on the idea of property ownership, and the rights that stem from it. Property ownership is something that is generally widely accepted yet people often inadvertently support its violations through government-based overrides. If you can agree that an individual cannot be free unless she has control over her actions, and over the produce of those actions then you can probably agree that any override of such control is a violation of rights.

There are two ways in which I can defend the idea of lock-in. First is from an ethical standpoint hinted at above, and second is from the practical or utilitarian standpoint where we are concerned with the overall societal “good”.

Moral Argument

This argument builds on the property ownership idea brought up above. If I own the products of my labor then I can do with it whatever I wish short of denying the same right to someone else. Furthermore the products that I create can themselves be whatever I want them to be. Otherwise I might not even be willing to create them.

So if I create a program I am completely within my right to make it operate in any way I please, even if this involves features that some people might not like. This by definition includes the right to make it deliberately incompatible with other pieces of software. Needless to say this right then extends to the creation of a file format that only works with my software.

In the same vein I am also right to distribute this software under my own terms. This is not unlike monetary payment. When someone charges $100 USD for a product he is basically establishing a specific term under which he is willing to provide the product. If this term, the payment of $100 USD, is not met then he is not willing to provide the product. Compelling someone to offer their products and services under terms he is not willing to provide them under is an act of force. It is in the same category as theft. It is essentially taking something that was not offered to begin with, because it was not offered under those forced terms.

Of course, the same then applies to renting the use of a property such as a server. If you own servers and host an App Store on it, for example, you do have the right to dictate what you wish to sell on it and under which terms will you allow its usage.

This is precisely why I no longer have any moral qualms about Apple or Microsoft maintaining proprietary software, proprietary closed file formats, and enforcing strict rules over what they distribute on their App Stores. I see it analogous to brick and mortar companies deciding what to sell, whom to cooperate with, whom to sell to, and what kinds of offers they are willing to make.

It would seem I am in a minority holding this view, however, as many people see some of these tactics as “anti-competitive”, and equate closed ecosystems that can be a result of these tactics to some kind of “tyranny”.

The problem I see with such views is that they effectively cry foul over someone doing something they themselves otherwise feel right to do. What would it be like if someone told you that the price under which you are selling your apples, for example, was “unfair” and then called you evil for the mere act of offering the apples under this price? Would your feelings change if you were a dominant apple seller in an area or would you still believe that it is those who cry foul over your prices whom are being unfair when they try to bring the government on you for daring to set your own price on your own stuff?

Furthermore, what would it be like if someone cried “anti-competitive practices” over you working with only certain trucking and retail companies to distribute your apples, thereby limiting where people can buy your apples? Perhaps you have a specific standard to which you hold the distribution of your apples, and aren’t willing to work with companies not meeting that standard.

And if you were instead producing devices of some kind, but made them work only with certain kinds of peripherals, would you feel it OK for your practice to be called “anti-competitive” just because you refuse to support other types of peripherals?

I think my point is clear. It really just takes putting yourself in their shoes, which I know is pretty hard to do when the companies in questions have billions in the bank and hundreds of millions of customers across the world. When someone is just that successful we tend to lose the ability to empathize, and however understandable that may be in our psyche, the problem is that by doing so we also set bad precedents for other not so successful businesses, and our own activities in the market as well.

The problem is serious because calling these practices evil, morally wrong or putting them under the brand of “anti-competitive practices” commonly involves the use of government force to prevent it, and this is where we are playing with fire. Using force against something that we think is wrong when it actually isn’t cannot have good long term results, and is in itself a wrong we should be trying to prevent.

If it is OK to get the government to dictate the terms under which Apple, Microsoft, Google and other big companies can do their business then we are also saying it is OK to do the same to small businesses, whom might not even be able to afford complying. In fact, by trying to impose your personal preferences regarding the terms under which big companies should offer their products and services you are actually inadvertently helping them by making it more difficult for small businesses whom also end up having to follow your preferences to compete with the big guys. Remember, big companies can afford all the regulations you wish to impose on them, even if they don’t like it. Small companies often cannot. They simply die.

A lot of people also confuse practical concerns with ethical ones. They confuse inconvenience with tyranny, strong dislike for a moral wrong. This is not to say that true tyranny does not exist or that nobody ever does anything immoral, but these have their rightful place.

If someone doing something merely creates a circumstance that is inconvenient for you, but you still have full control over your own actions and property, then whatever the other party did is not itself immoral. If the other party actually tried to take control over your own actions by force then they would be doing something immoral, because they would be invading your own personal space, your individual sovereignty. There is a big difference.

Practical Argument

Speaking of practical concerns they are actually what is complained about the most, and are due to the confusion mentioned above often the basis for the moralizing against the practice of lock-in.

But is there a practical argument to be made in favor of lock-in, something that actually results in the net benefit for everyone, and not just the companies engaging in such a practice? I believe it can.

Lock-in can be understood as an alternative to patents, but one which functions without any government bureaucracy or any of the patents related persecution going on today. A company may wish to improve upon a particular format, but they don’t want to automatically award the improvements to their competitors as well. The ability to make the new format work only with their technology is therefore their incentive to create an improvement to begin with.

I believe this purely technological, practical, and decentralized tactic of creating incentive for innovation is in fact far superior to the patents system or the intellectual property legislations in general. Ultimately these proprietary standards raise the expectations for everyone, and the associated features trickle down to open standards as well, benefiting everyone.

Of course, there is also such a thing as an industry standard whereas a proprietary format becomes so commonplace that alternative technology makers figure out how to interoperate to support it, to some extent bringing about the benefits of an open standard to something that is actually a proprietary one. PDF was a good example of this, and Microsoft Office formats to some extent as well, which had limited support in OpenOffice.org, and other software.

While there are indeed plenty of examples of innovation happening in the realm of open standards and open source software it has to be admitted that a huge amount of innovation also comes from companies who take a closed and more proprietary approach to innovation.

It would seem that what often benefits from a closed approach is integration and ease of use of technology. Apple is in this case a prime example, but Microsoft is not a bad example either. While Linux still struggles when it comes to ensuring a stable, easy to use, well supported and cohesive user experience Apple excels with Mac OS X and iOS, and Windows 7 still feels much more polished compared to various Linux OS’.

When it comes to ensuring perfect integration, and consequently a cohesive and pleasant user experience, control and coordination is key. It is hard to have this level of control and coordination if your product is a mish mash of components created by a loose international group of developers with varying skills, different standards of quality and different ideas about what constitutes a “great product”.

Conclusion

I would concede that the practice of lock-in is not “nice”. I understand the dislike of it, and I dislike it on many occasions as well. I prefer open systems and open standards, and believe that creating well integrated, powerful and sophisticated systems which are simultaneously based on open source and open standards would be the holy grail.

However, if this is not possible, or is simply very difficult to accomplish in the current climate, I do not feel it worth pursuing openness for openness sake, and sacrificing good technology and innovation at the altar of this seemingly lofty, but empty pursuit.

If a company, however big or small, wishes to pursue a development tactic that provides them with a leverage in the market I believe they are right to do so just as anyone else is right to dictate the terms of disposal or use of their own property. To be able to pull this off they have to have some leverage to begin with, and this leverage has to be earned as well, and cannot be earned without products which already create a significant amount of value in the market. To call companies “evil” in this context seems downright disingenuous.

We should criticize the terms of use which we believe to be bad or unreasonable just as we criticize products which we may consider to be dysfunctional, ugly or not-so-good, but just as we don’t call a company unethical because it created a particularly sucky product we shouldn’t call them unethical for making us a particularly sucky deal. If you don’t like it, move on.

What we can reasonably do is argue with the company, using persuasion instead of threatening government force, or vote with our wallets. And if there is no alternative we should push to create one, either alone or in cooperation with others. It would be far more productive than knee jerk reacting to the seeming “injustice” of “lock-in” by invoking the mighty hammer of government regulation.

Rate this article:

Last updated .

Follow Daniel Memetic on
  • Nick

    @Daniel
    I get what you’re saying and I don’t disagree.  In fact, I don’t think anyone who respects freedom could possibly disagree.  However,  this issue is not a question of whether someone has the right to pursue a lock-in business model or not, it is about the imbalance that such business practices have imposed.
    In short, people in the FOSS camp are sometimes severely hampered in their ability to achieve things simply because these lock-in vendors have deliberately blown up the bridges. It’s the restrictions these monolithic companies impose whether knowingly or unknowingly that causes such animosity.
    UEFI is intended to stop all re-purposing of low powered arm computers under the guise of security.   That meas the scrap heap will get bigger MUCH faster.
    Do you as a bit of a geek, realy want to have to buy a new phone or tablet every time you want something new on it?  Would you not be a little bit annoyed that you couldn’t just use the one you have and put the new stuff on it?
    I’d be very surprised if you are not.
    FW
     
     
     

    • Daniel Memetic

      I agree some of these tactics are bad, and my attempt to defend them in practical terms was more of a “devil’s advocate” play. I just think the issue is a little more complex than the absolute rejection of all of these tactics tends to suggest. Sometimes it is more of a trade-off than an outright bad thing. I think Apple is a good example of that.

      And no I wouldn’t want to buy a new phone for a new feature, if you’re talking about software. Hardware wise, if the flexibility of being able to change the hardware actually makes the phone clunkier, harder to use, or otherwise not as pleasant then I’d rather take one with the features I know I need than the more customizable one. When it comes to PCs my requirements are a little bit different, but I’m tending towards what “just works” more and more. It really is down to personal preferences and trade offs.

      As for UEFI, to the extent to which I know of the issues relating to it I have mixed feelings. I like the idea of replacing the BIOS, but it can probably be done without all the fishy stuff.

  • Martin de Boer

    Hi Daniel,
    Interesting read, but I do not totally agree with you. This is because some proprietary formats establish a ‘natural monopoly’ in the market. This means that their use is so ubiquitous, that people start to rely on that format for their communications. This effectively locks out everyone who cannot access this format from communicating with others. So people become forced to use a certain format, because everybody else is using it. This not only involves certain formats such as .doc and .pdf, but also involves services such as facebook and linkedin. Because the natural monopoly is established, people become dependant on the format/service for their communications. And in a market which is monopolistic, the owner of the format/service can determine the price. This is no problem if the format/service is price elastic. So if the price rises, less people start using the format/service. But if the format is price inelastic, people cannot switch easily or abandon it. An example of a price inelastic product is oil. People rely on it to be able to transport themselves. The alternatives are not ready yet to replace oil. So if the price rises, we cannot easily switch to an alternative fuel or stop with transportation (you need to get to your work everyday). So this creates a problem. If a market is monopolistic and the price is inelastic, the owner of the format/service has a lot of market power, which he can abuse. Most owners walk a fine line between abusion and profiting from such a situation. This is why open formats / services matter. People can switch easily between applications or services. And the power balance is restored in the market.

    • Daniel Memetic

      Ubiquity is hard to escape from indeed, but something being very popular doesn’t exactly make it evil. If lock-in was used to aid in making the format so popular then I would expect people to try and establish alternatives before lock-in leads to ubiquity of the proprietary format. I think it’s then worth looking at the leverage that a company already had before they started with the lock-in practice. For instance, why exactly did Microsoft Office become so popular in the nineties?

      It’s worth asking questions like this because they may show that the reason companies establishing lock-in can get away with it in the first place probably has something to do with them already having offered a fair bit of value on the market. I mean, not everyone can establish a lock-in from the get go and get away with it. You still need a good product to draw people in to begin with!

      I also agree monopolies are generally bad, but I reserve the possibility of there being monopolies which become ones simply because the product being offered is that good that people don’t see a need to call for or establish alternatives.

      I think the biggest problem is the use of government power to conquer markets, as is done with patents, plus all the various lobbying that benefits only certain companies at the expense of others.

      Imagine no software patents though. Patents are one type of lock-in which I do believe to be morally wrong since it relies on the use of force to prevent people from implementing similar or same ideas just because someone beat them to it (even when said ideas were reached independently). Without patents, and other governmental lock-ins, the only lock-in possible would be contractual and technological.

      As for oil, that’s simply a resource. A monopoly would be a single company being the only one able to sell oil. The problem with oil is that its distribution is too politicized and interwoven with government power, which is definitely a bad thing.

  • David

    There is nothing immoral about vendor lockin.  Foolish customers are entitled to take the risk that the vendor will either go out of business or simply lose interest in the product.  Various music subscription services come immediately to mind.  The problem comes when the vendor , using the defacto monopoly that they now have, charges far more than they would have in an open market.   The usual studies into how a monopoly acts apply.   There are cases where a monopoly does not gouge on prices but these are not the norm and there are usually other pressures on such that prevent gouging(good will toward customers almost never being a consideration).

  • Grant

    There are two important points you missed:
    1)  I may be able to choose where I sell my apples, but I am not allowed to tell you how you are allowed to eat them.   For instance, I cannot tell you that you are only allowed to eat them at your dining room table if it came from Ashley furniture.  When I buy a device, I own the hardware, and should be allowed to use it as I choose.
    2)  Although putting data in a format that is not easily readable by others (MS Word) is a good idea for the company producing the software, accepting that kind of term is not ideal for the person producing the content of the data.
     
    Remember, there are two kinds of lock in, and you have mixed them.   One is that I am limited in what can read my data.   This is unfortunate, and can have a negative effect on the owner of the data, but should not be illegal, even though it is not nice.   The other type is telling me what I am allowed to do with the product after I bought it.   This violates the principals of a sale, and should be illegal, or treated as a lease.

    • Daniel Memetic

      I agree with you on 1., but this doesn’t preclude you from voluntarily *agreeing* to eat your apples only in certain ways if the apple distributor asks you to agree as a condition of him giving you his apples, albeit I know that when it comes to apples nobody would agree to something like that. The point though is that he is not wrong to merely make you an offer, if you are free to accept or refuse of your own free will, no matter how crazy or silly the offer may be.

      With regards to technological devices, however, I think it’s worth noting that a device not having a particular capability is not the same thing as someone controlling what you can do with it. Otherwise it would be “wrong” for someone to offer you a phone that can’t connect to the internet, or perhaps doesn’t support certain types of software. That would be ridiculous. Again, someone making you a bad offer doesn’t make that person or company evil if you’re free to refuse.

      It doesn’t matter why did the manufacturer not include certain capabilities because they were free to make it whatever they wanted. It’s up to you whether you still want to buy it such as it is or not, and if you do buy it then you’ve effectively agreed with its limitations as well. The fact that you were the one making that choice is what keeps you in control of your own property. 

      And of course, I agree that accepting terms which you find to be bad is something you shouldn’t do, obviously.

  • Ancurio

    I’ll just throw in some things that came to my mind while reading this:
     - The statement that you’re free to create and offer your product in any way you like is simply not true. When you sell apple’s, and it is found out that you actually inject an unnoticeable drug which makes people heavily dependent, you’ll get banned from the market and pay a heavy fine (I presume). You are also not allowed to sell these apples EVEN if you warn your consumers with big letters about that drug.
    - If you’re selling some sort of sweet or otherwise processed food, you HAVE to state the ingredients. There is no hiding. This isn’t a case of “but it’s going to hurt the companies because anyone can copy them!”. Sorry, but the consumers’ rights are simply above all that. There is no arguing.
    - I don’t know about the US, but in Germany, should you secretly sit down with all apple growers/importers of a certain area and make a deal to that everyone keeps prices above a certain level, you’ll get busted big time (if it is found out). There doesn’t have to be a single consumer to point out this “inconvenience”, the government acts on its own because there are certain laws forbidding this kind of anti-consumerism.
    The point is, no, you don’t have the right to offer a product in any way you wish. If you don’t want to play by the rules, you can simply go home. The only reason we have free markets is because they’re considered to have the biggest merit for all citizens, not because people thought about underlying “freedoms to offer anything under any terms” that anyone should have. That’s why it’s so important to make sure everyone follows the rules.
    Now, imagine some of the biggest states of the 1st world would actually ban anyone from producing their products in countries like China were workers are treated like trash. Big companies could probably cope with paying employees of their own country under fair terms.. but maybe some small companies couldn’t and would go bankrupt. Is the legislation therefore bad? No, because if those small companies couldn’t have existed without ensuring their workers were granted basic human rights, these companies shouldn’t have existed in the first place. No need to save them.
    I just want you to keep one thing in mind: Companies often don’t operate the way they do because it’s the only way possible, but because they always aim to make as much profit as possible. This isn’t wrong, because they’re supposed to. But, this also comes with the condition that we need to rigorously monitor and limit their behavior, because else the purpose of capitalism fails, which is to be of merit to the people, not the companies. If certain companies cannot comply with the rules, they’re supposed to die and make place for others that can.

    • Daniel Memetic

       The statement that you’re free to create and offer your product in any way you like is simply not true. When you sell apple’s, and it is found out that you actually inject an unnoticeable drug which makes people heavily dependent, you’ll get banned from the market and pay a heavy fine (I presume). You are also not allowed to sell these apples EVEN if you warn your consumers with big letters about that drug.

      I would differentiate between fraud and selling something that is different from a non-drugged apple. Selling a drugged apple while telling people it is a normal apple is fraud, and I agree that is wrong. However, selling a drugged apple and being clear about it being drugged is simply selling a different item for the different type of consumer. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Someone may actually want a drugged apple for his own reasons. Perhaps he doesn’t want to eat it, but do some experiments, or perhaps it’s a drug he’d like to try for medical purposes or even recreational purposes. It’s not up to the government or anyone else to dictate that.

      About stating ingredients, you’re calling for a standard that I agree with, but I wouldn’t force companies to do so. I simply wouldn’t buy from companies which hide their ingredients if I care for knowing about them or for them being open about that. It should be as simple as that. 

      I disagree with your remarks about the free market. I think the reason why it provides most benefit actually comes from the very freedom you think doesn’t matter so much. I simply disagree with the use of force to compel people to do things differently if what they are doing is only with their own property, and if they aren’t forcing anyone to buy from them. I think this is a matter of simple civility that governments often throw aside in their quest to “solve” every problem with a ban hammer.

      I agree we should rigorously monitor companies, but this can be done through private cooperative institutions and market pressure. Various private certifications are a good example. If a lot of people care about companies following certain rules, and to get a particular certificate you have to follow those rules, then a lot of people will buy products that only have this certificate, which will itself incentivize companies to follow those rules so they can get that certificate.

      So we don’t really need the government to establish and enforce all rules. The problem with government is that it does everything through force. I believe that if we can achieve good results without the use of force, we shouldn’t use force.

  • zman58

    Most customers are unaware what lock-in means to them. In most cases they find out too late and become stuck with it–on the treadmill. Some never even realize it or may be, quite strangely, willing to be limited by it. Vendors don’t sell lock-in because it it would not be considered an attractive feature or attribute of a product. It is an underhanded and deviant form of servitude. A form of entrapment. The end user license agreement (EULA) is written in fine print and difficult to read for a reason–because they don’t what you to know what you are giving up. They don’t advertise the limitations because they realize that an uninformed paying customer is the best customer for their business.
    If I buy a device, I want the freedom to do with it whatever I want to do, including running my own  or my own choice of software on it. Using the device as I wish.
    If I acquire software I want the freedom to use it in ANY way I need to or want to use it. I want freedom of use, not entrapment, servitude, and monopoly lock-in.
    Why do you want to promote lock-in as a good thing? Why is a monopoly good? Monopolies drive up the costs of goods and services while doing next to nothing to create better products or services. Monopolies are bad for the economy and bad for society. Large monopolies infiltrate the political landscape and attempt to encourage the development of laws that favor their business–at expense of public good. The biggest threat to lock-in would be smart customers and capable competitors, both of which are generally good for a healthy innovative economy and society.

    • Daniel Memetic

      I’m not sure EULAs are so complicated solely because companies don’t want people to read them. They are typically displayed before installation after all. We are just lazy. The thing is, EULAs probably wouldn’t be so complicated if it weren’t for the legal requirements they have to meet and legal burdens they have to protect from, which implicates government as a culprit as well, not just the business.

      Also not all companies are the same. Some do have simplified texts that spell out the limitations in form of FAQs and similar. All it takes is to do some research. Besides, I don’t think you can really hide the knowledge of limitations from the public for too long on the internet, so I don’t think companies can really even bet on any of them being secret.

      I agree with the freedom to use your own device, of course, but don’t confuse limitations built into the device itself with someone denying you certain ways of using it. I mean, you can’t use a bottle as a very good baseball bat, but that doesn’t mean that the bottle manufacturer restricts your freedom to use a bottle as a baseball bat. Sometimes companies don’t, or don’t want to design certain capabilities into their devices, and that should be fine so long as you are free to refuse to buy them.

      Now of course there is also the issue of a device being capable of something, but the EULA forbidding it. Again, though, your agreement with the EULA means it is you too who imposed this restriction on yourself, not just the company. If you don’t like that, just don’t buy from such companies or call for / start your own alternatives.

      Another problem is when companies use the government to restrict what you can do, like various intellectual property laws, anti-circumvention legislation etc. I strongly oppose such practices because I think the law (something you didn’t agree with) shouldn’t dictate how you use your property. Only your agrement can legitimize restrictions, nothing else. 

    • Daniel Memetic

      I forgot to answer your last question. I don’t exactly want to promote lock-in, just encourage an alternative way of thinking about it, one which doesn’t see it as a moral evil, and which sees at least a possibility of it being a part of a practical trade off sometimes, if not a benefit. There are various types of lock in with various consequences.

      The motivation for attempting to defend it is simple. I don’t want my personal agreement with certain restrictions be construed as agreement with some kind of evil. I should have the freedom to agree with whatever I want if I see it as a generally good trade off. For example, I am well aware of the restrictions that come with some Apple products, but what if I value what I get in return more than what those restrictions restrict? Am I evil for that? No, and that’s the point.

      I think it’s a pretty big jump from defending lock-in to supporting monopolies though. Most monopolies are built with the help of government power, in fact, which I strongly oppose. Sometimes a monopoly may, in theory, arise simply because the company having it serves their customers so well that nobody sees a need to establish a competitor, but this is typically unlikely. Anyway, see my previous comments where I already talked about the monopoly issue, if interested.

      Thanks everyone for your comments. 

  • Jon

    > just because you refuse to support other types of peripherals?

    Here is where I had to seriously question your technological literacy and stop reading your article.

    It wasn’t very good up to that point and my expectation for it to get better was completely destroyed.

    The phrase “refuse to support” is intentionally misleading. Whether you are lying or spreading someone else’s lie one can only speculate.

    It is not a “refusal to support”, but the deliberate passive-aggressive stance of implementing “functionality” where the device refuses to function.
    I, the owner of the computer, should be able to choose whichever software repository I please, and load whatever object code for the computer to execute that I please.

    Proprietary “platforms” only exist today because the vast majority (99.99%) of the userbase (including a lot of self-proclaimed geeks sadly) are technologically inept, naive, and short-sighted. 

    • Daniel Memetic

      Semantics? You’re basically contrasting “refusal to support” with “implementing functionality that makes the device refuse to support some functionality”. Seems like a difference without much difference. Developer’s refusal to support is simply implemented in the code. Of course, refusal to support does not always manifest this way so, at least to me, it makes sense to put it in more general terms. Believe it or not, there was no intent to mislead.

      About your last remark, I actually used to believe that myself at one point, but the view doesn’t really make sense. Not everyone can be an expert at everything, yet you expect everyone to effectively have expertise in technology that bigger geeks like you have, and pose that as a condition to ensuring that there are no proprietary platforms.

      I think such a stance flies in the face of reality, and also employs prejudice towards geeks who actually find proprietary platforms less problematic than you do. Does one have to use Free Software exclusively to be a true technology geek?