Locked in an IT prison

“Vendor lock-in” is a term that irritates IT people. It describes the result of poor technology choices that lock computer users into using certain products.

On a personal level, many readers would have experienced vendor lock-in with cheap inkjet printers that are cunningly designed to only accept one type of cartridge at a price that would make a Saudi oil sheik cringe.

As taxpayers we see this on a regular basis as clueless ministers and public servants are lunched by smart salespeople and lobbyists to lock governments into massively overpriced and inappropriate contracts for everything from battleships and toll roads to paper clips and school laptops.

In business, falling victim to vendor lock-in can prove to be just as expensive. Over the years we’ve seen various technologies fail or be discontinued and, worst of all, being locked into one technology leaves a business subject to the planned upgrade cycles of computer manufacturers and software companies.

For big corporations, we often see spectacular IT failures when an expensive proprietary platform falls over and leaves customers stranded or goods lost while the business frantically tries to restore its CRM or booking system.

Cloud services provide a modern twist on this where vendor lock-in can see a business locked out of its own software or data on the whim of the service provider.

A few weeks back Amazon gave a great example of those risks when they suspended the Kindle service for a Norwegian lady. As a consequence she couldn’t access her substantial eBook collection.

Exactly the same thing could happen to your business if it is locked into a single cloud provider.

Avoiding this situation isn’t easy and the key thing to avoid vendor lock-in is to make sure your data remains in your possession and is regularly saved to your office system in an industry standard, readable format such as Comma Separated Values (CSV) for databases and spreadsheets.

We should keep in mind that vendor lock-in is not unique to cloud computing, Microsoft’s and Apple’s fortunes have been built on businesses being forced to make expensive upgrades every time a new system came out.

Like many industries, the IT industry is moving to the “razor blade model” of doing business where the upfront capital expenditure is cheap but customers are locked into lucrative ongoing costs.

Unlike politicians and corporate executives, we have to pay the ongoing costs of those decisions out of our own pockets – so understanding the real costs and risks of IT products, whether on the desktop or cloud, is important before taking the risk with vendor lock-in.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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