Getting out of the vendor lock-in rut

Don't get trapped, says Frank Hayes

Last week’s biggest news was old news: Microsoft will have to pay a big fine and make changes to Windows because the company illegally tried to lock in European customers. Yes, you remember right: That news did originally come down in 2004. Hey, sometimes it takes a while before we notice.

But lock-in is nothing new — from vendors or IT people.

Vendors have always tried to lock us in by using bundling, proprietary technology and secret programming interfaces. That has gotten Microsoft into legal trouble in the US starting more than a decade ago (remember Bill Gates’ video deposition in US v Microsoft?) and in Europe since 1998.

It took European authorities six years to conclude that Microsoft’s lock-in tactics were anticompetitive and decide on those sanctions in 2004. And it has taken the years since then to complete an appeal. That’s why three-year-old news is in the headlines now.

But for IT people, lock-in is even older news, dating back to the days when IBM tried to keep customers from using any card-sorting machines except its own. The biggest vendors run into antitrust trouble because they’re monopolies, but practically all IT vendors will lock in customers if they can. Their goal: to keep those customer dollars coming in by making it too expensive for the customer to change vendors.

We all know that. If we’re smart, we always take the risks of vendor lock-in into account when we pick products for our IT projects.

But when was the last time you thought about the ways you and your IT staff lock yourselves in?

After all, we don’t just select products and technologies based on what the business needs — or what vendors force us into. We also choose them because of what we’re good at. We want to leverage the expertise we have, whether that’s with development tools, scripting languages or product idiosyncrasies.

We also like what’s familiar: user interfaces, patching processes, vendor support procedures. We don’t want to change the habits that make us more productive.

And we want what we trust, rightly or wrongly, whether that means a specific technology or vendor, or even a particular salesman who has never steered us wrong.

Trust, familiarity and expertise aren’t bad guides for selecting IT — unless they start to lock us in.

When a vendor locks us in, we’re prisoners of its prices and features. We’re stuck with what we’re offered, forced to move in lock step with the vendor’s product plans.

But when we lock ourselves in, we’re captives of our comfort zone. And that can be more insidious. We may limit what we’ll even look at just because it’s not like what we’ve always done. When it comes to business technology, that’s a recipe for obsolescence.

Besides, we’re not paid to be comfortable.

So don’t be. Watch out for internal lock-in, just as you do for vendor lock-in. Keep a sharp ear out for “We can’t”, “We don’t know how”, and “What the heck is that?”. They’re warning signals of an IT shop that’s falling into a comfortable rut.

But don’t just watch — learn. Encourage your staff to play with new technology, kick the tyres of new products, and experiment with new approaches. Recognise them for dabbling. Reward them for mastery. When they explore, they stay fresh — and you stay flexible.

That means you’ll be better able to offer IT options to your business users — options based on what they need, not on what you’re unable to do.

And that’s a goal worth locking into.

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Tags managementvendorslock-in

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