Saturday, June 8, 2013

Vendor Lock In

Vendor Lock In is one of those terms that us open source geek types use quite often. I don't think the people around us quite get what we're saying. Fortunately for us, we now have a fantastic example in the Chromebook.

So something goes wrong with your Chromebook. I know! We'll just call our technician - they'll be able to help us! Only... alas, the poor helpless techie is effectively locked out (apart from a couple of small bits and pieces - flicking it into Developer mode to remove user preferences from the device, restoring it from a USB stick or sending it away for repair). There's no other choice - wait for Google to fix it. Don't like Google's response time? Tough bikkies. You have no other choice. You're now locked in. That's it. One vendor to rule them all.

But it goes beyond that into less obvious ways. Remember writing up a document on MS Word '95? Perhaps you were in school... and then you come out of school. If you still had the file, you might have been able to read it using another copy of MS Word (though there's a fairly good chance that you couldn't because you weren't using the right version of Word)... but you had to have MS Word. Word Perfect had some less than perfect import features for importing MS Word files in - so there was always that. The thing is, while the content of those documents may be yours, the format that it's stored in may have a much bigger effect on the longevity of that data or who can access it.

So when FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) types talk about open data formats (and open data for that matter) they aren't talking about revealing all of your private information (in fact, I think most FLOSS types are probably disgusted by Facebook's stance on this), but rather, providing the means to give the user the choice for applications. For example, if everyone was using an open, very specific format to store their documents in, then people could just use the word processor that works best for them rather than having to go with the de facto standard (MS Word) because that's what everyone else uses and you must be able to share files. This is a type of vendor lock in.... The vendor has all of the power.

Nowadays we get things for free! Google give away email accounts. MS give away some software (MS Word Viewer comes to mind). Apple give away iTunes etc. But what do all of these things have in common? A switching cost...

Imagine if Google suddenly decided to start charging for your email address. You might be inclined to pay it just so that you don't have to change your email address. You could no longer view word files from other people because Word Viewer suddenly disappeared... if you were reliant on it, you might be inclined to buy MS Office. And iTunes isn't really free anyway... It's more a conduit to paid content. Each of these free products represent a form of vendor lock in. How much of your life would suddenly end up in disarray if you couldn't use those products anymore?

Vendor lock in should be seen as a form of risk. Is it acceptable to you? For me, the Chromebook is a fail on this point (though it can be mitigated by using Chrubuntu - for a "migration plan", if the worse does happen and there's a problem you can't fix, then having a bunch of USB sticks ready with Chrubuntu installed seems a smart idea).

Word processing really should have moved on (To put an emphasis on styles/structure and collaboration) but given the choice, I tend to go with LibreOffice - it supports a crapload more versions of various file formats or LyX though I don't tend to share LyX files. Oh and Google Docs for collaboration (back when people were first talking about Web 2.0 there were a spate of online word processors around. Why did they never develop?). iTunes... I still like cd's and it's legal to format shift in NZ (so I can store my music on my phone).

And of course, the big shift is coming... Wordpress (I can chose who hosts it without having to change the platform), something for email (suggestions greatly appreciated)... I'd love to hear suggestions on collaborative word processing...

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