In Defense of Technology Lock-In
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.