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Escaping From Vendor Lock-in With FOSS

No Transferability For You!

March 2, 2009

Could your company become a victim of vendor lock-in? If you rely entirely on proprietary software, you very well could be. What exactly is this vendor lock-in of which I speak? It is a way of ensuring that you, the consumer, will only be able to use specific products as set forth by select manufacturers.

A classic, old-school example of vendor lock-in would have to be with ink jet printer cartridges. When you purchase any major brand of ink jet printer, you will be stuck relying on ink they themselves produce, no matter how hard you might wish to use something else.

Another example is some "pre-fab" computers coming from Dell, HP, and so on. In many instances, you are stuck with power supply units that do not conform to something that might otherwise be available from the local PC repair store. Often times the motherboards are also custom to this extent as well, thus forcing you to use replacements from a single source, rather than being free to select a motherboard from the source of your choosing.

But all of this is forgivable as to some extent. Even if it takes some changes, you can escape this kind of restrictive lock-in. Even if it simply means buying new hardware, you can at least get company-critical data off of the device and onto another one of their choosing. As for printers, that is a simple one as well. Just make sure to purchase something else altogether.

Yet when it comes to software, it's a whole different animal.

No transferability for you!

One of my favorite examples of painful vendor lock-in has to be with the various Microsoft Office products. And the worst offender from the lot is Microsoft Publisher. Now, let's say for example that you are back in 2002. And you are at work where you have a brand new installation of Publisher 2002 on your desktop.

Back at the home office, you have your trusty copy of Publisher 2000, which you will be using later on that same evening. At work, you just created a copy of a mission-critical document that was created with the new 2002 software. But due to time constraints, you'll need to take this home to be worked on in greater detail without the hustle and bustle of the workplace to interfere with your creativity.

So you get home, take out your Flash drive and retrieve the Publisher document as to get started with it.

Suddenly, you realize that Publisher 2000 is not compatible with the format your document is in. Annoyed, you do some research only to discover that you are left purchasing yet another copy of the new 2002 app. Or you find yourself using a viewer.

Angry at this point, you call a friend who recommends a free/open source alternative application. Not only is it free, but it can do vastly more than either of the Publisher applications for this era. Any excitement, however, dies quickly upon the discovery that you are using a locked-in file format. In short, you are stuck re-creating the data in a new program.

But this is not the worst of it. Imagine what would happen should that specific program end up no longer being supported? Meaning while competing software continues on, this locked-in program ceases to receive any updates at all! And your data is STUCK in this format. Needless to say, it is hardly something that is going to endear most people to buying more software products from the same company.

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