Vendor lock-in for dummies


Any GNU/Linux user ends up hearing, sooner or later, the Ultimate Argument(tm) from a Windows fanboy:

If Linux is so good, and is given away for free, how can Windows still be so prominent?

Ironically, many Windows users answer the question themselves, when explaining why they can’t make the switch to Linux:

  • There are no games for Linux
  • Photoshop or AutoCAD are vital for me, and they only work under Windows
  • I fear some pieces of hardware won’t work under Linux
  • The web page of my bank only displays correctly under IE
  • My friends/colleagues/business partners share documents in MS Office formats, and I need to be compatible

The concept than embraces all the preceding points, and answers the rhetorical question above, is vendor lock-in. I will try to explain the concept with a humble tale I have used twice so far in comments to entries in Enrique Dans’s blog.

Tales of bicycles and cars

Imagine a country with no bicycles.

One day a guy comes up with the idea of making them, and starts to produce, and sell, bicycles that we shall call of type A. Being an empty market, the A-type bicycles quickly triumph, and the maker makes a lot of money.

But some time later, a second guy devises a better bike design (type B), and decides to produce and sell it. The price and the quality are better, so when people buy a new bike or replace an old one, they tend to buy bikes of type B. Soon enough, the market is dominated by the new, better, bicycle.

Now imagine a country with no cars.

One day a guy comes up with the idea of making cars, and starts to produce and sell cars of type A. As cars need petrol to run, A-type gas stations develop in parallel to car sales. Building gas stations is expensive, but sales are guaranteed, as everyone has or will have A-type cars, and they need A-type petrol: their growth is synergistic.

But some time later, a second guy devises a better car design (type B) and decides to produce and sell it. The price and the quality are better, BUT drivers can not buy B-type cars, because there is no B-type gas station. The problem is that, since noone has a B-type car, making B-type gas stations is doomed to bankrupt. So, no B-type cars are sold, because there are no B-type gas stations, and B-type gas stations will not be made until B-type cars are popular!

The result is a vendor lock-in.


When a market (such as the one in the tale above) is dominated by vendor lock-ins, the producers benefited by the lock-in have little, if any, incentive to make better products. Their sales are guaranteed by the lock-in situation, not by their superior product in a fair market.

On the other hand, other producers will have an extremely hard time for competing, as their products will be almost unusable for the buyers.

The moral is that the lock-in situation is bad for either the potential users of the product locked-out (the B-type car above) and the locked-in one (the A-type car). Even if a consumer would never choose the locked-out product, the lack of competition will adversely affect the evolution of the product they do choose. The lock-in is bad for everyone: all consumers and all producers but the locker ones.

And this relates to Windows vs. Linux in what way?

In a really straightforward way. Microsoft, cunning as they are, have tried their best to get as many lock-ins on the software market as they can. Ironically, instead of abhorring this practice, most Windows users happily continue not only using, but even defending the product. I shudder at the simpleton comment that “freedom is not using Linux, but using Windows and Linux whenever you feel like it”. Literally taken, it is a very wise argument. But unfortunately the reality is not so simple: using Windows helps enforce a lock-in that keeps Linux out (while in this case the contrary is not true). You can not use Windows/Linux 50/50, because Windows asks you for monogamy.

The many lock-ins that MS has forced down the throats of the users, while the latter still claim them to be benefits of Windows include (as mentioned at the beginning):

  • Proprietary communication protocols that will not work with any other OS. This includes modifications on the IE web browser, so that web pages had to be done for it, and then be incompatible with other browsers. Or the MSN protocol, that is kept as closed as possible, to make free clones of the MSN client as little compatible as possible.
  • Proprietary file formats that will not be possible to modify with tools other than the “official” MS ones: WMV for video, DOC, XLS, PPT for office documents.
  • As much “Windows-only” software as possible, including games. Making games for platforms other than Windows ensues the wrath of MS, something that game makers can not take lightly, since their sales depend on the game actually running under Windows.
  • As much “Windows-only” hardware as possible. The first idea that someone gets about an OS is that it is the piece of software that interacts with the hardware. If so, it is astonishing why it is not MS the one incorporating the drivers in the OS, instead of the hardware makers (hardware != software) providing them. We have all grown accustomed to buying printers, mice, external CD/DVD/HDs… with a CD with the “Drivers for Windows 98” or some such. Why? Windows can not make the drivers out of the blue, true. But the hardware makers can just make the necessary data public, so anyone will be able to make drivers. If the maker keeps these specifications secret, they will simply not sell anything.

1 Comment »

  1. El blog del piloto » Blog Archive » La importancia de ODF y la respuesta de Microsoft con OOXML (i) said,

    December 6, 2007 @ 2:15 am

    […] El famoso vendor lock-in. Básicamente consiste en la vinculación que se establece entre el usuario de un producto y el proveedor del mismo, de manera que por las características del producto o servicio, al usuario le es muy complejo el cambio de proveedor. Esta complejidad viene derivada principalmente de costes de cambio. En el caso que estamos viendo, si los formatos de archivo son propietarios, su funcionamiento no está a disposición de otros desarrolladores. Por tanto, si cambiamos de software corremos con el coste de que la historia personal o de la compañía queda de acceso limitado ya que el nuevo software que usemos no podrá interpretar exactamente esos archivos. Otro ejemplo claro de esto serían los accesorios para teléfonos móviles, especialmente los cargadores en el caso de Nokia. Durante muchos años, todos los Nokia usaban cargadores con el mismo conector. Cuando tenías que cambiar de móvil, tenía un importante peso el poder aprovechar la batería de cargadores de casa y de coche que ya habías adquirido. Respecto al vendor lock-in, Iñaki Silanes tiene un buen artículo (en inglés) en el blog handyfloss. […]

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