The Forgotten Question of Vendor Lock-in


With Microsoft, Apple, and Google all set to bring about the latest versions of operating systems and productivity software, PC users once again find themselves in the crossfire of choosing a particular path for their computing interests. Many will undoubtedly stay with what they know, or base what could be a monumental decision on merely aesthetics alone. Windows 8 has been given a beautiful makeover, Android 4.1 (a.k.a. “Jelly Bean”) is sweeter than ever, and Mac OS X Mountain Lion will surely be even easier than its predecessors.

It would appear though that users have forgotten to take into account the safety and longevity of their greatest computing asset… their data.


With the deluge of modern, almost toy like software, it’s easy to forget the reason why we started using computers in the first place. For some, it was to play games, or to tinker with something seemingly magical in its ability to process and display information. For most however, the computer is a tool, and was initially required to gather and organize the slew of data we find ourselves drowning in from day to day.

Typewriters were replaced with Word Processors. Numeric keypads became spreadsheets. Entire filing cabinets were minimized into fields of a database that allowed quick and easy searching for long lost facts and references. Ticker tapes were replaced with instant information from the world wide web. Interoffice memos were no longer sent through the postal system in large manila envelopes, but via e-mail. Telephone calls became text messages. Text messages became forum posts and status updates on social media websites. Entire bins of old photos and slides became digital libraries stored on hard drives across the planet.

Welcome to the digital age, in all of its complexity! Now that we are able to efficiently organize and retrieve information, we’ve started to produce a whole lot more of it, and although you might think your share belongs to you, you might be surprised to discover who actually controls the access to it.

Companies have sprung up overnight in order to develop (and sell) all the programs you could possibly need. Microsoft is perhaps the best known, due to its dominance in both the operating system and productivity software markets. This wasn’t always the case however, as there was actually a time word processing programs other than Word reigned supreme. Perhaps you remember a little piece of software called WordPerfect? Then again, depending on your age and experience, you may not.


Oh WordPerfect, how do we miss thee!

Now that Microsoft Word has become nearly synonymous with word processing, businesses mindlessly hand over their hard earned money for site licenses and large volume purchases in order to continue having access to their own data. Microsoft has driven the price up, and continues to release new versions (some would argue, minor iterations) in order to milk their cash cow.

How did this happen? How did we, as a collective, become so zombie-like in our selection of word processing software? There is the obvious answer, that we have become lazy and don’t want to learn how to use anything new, but there’s a more abstract reason hiding behind the curtain: Microsoft controls our documents. The many thousands, millions, perhaps even billions of documents scattered across computers everywhere can only be accessed by the software that a single company makes and sells. We are indentured to them. We blindly allowed them to format our data behind closed doors. Other groups and corporations have spent hundreds of hours trying to reverse-engineer such encoding in an attempt to create competing products that can import (and then re-encode into their own format) your information, only to have Microsoft make some minor modifications and turn the would-be translation into a soupy mess of a layout. When we complained enough to have Steve Ballmer slapped on the wrist, Microsoft released their specification, and then promptly created a new one to keep their stranglehold on the industry.

Documents aren’t the only data we should be concerned over either. Do you know how your many digital photo’s are being stored right now? If you’ve been using Apple’s iPhoto, you may have a problem trying to access your data with anything else, as your photos are all stored in an Apple-centric folder matrix, along with a proprietary format for all of the extra descriptions and geo-tagging you’ve done. Perhaps you’re entirely content to place all of your data into the loving hands of Apple, but to expect a single company to persist indefinitely as the champion to all your cherished memories is naive at best.

The Plan

We (the collective whole of computer users everywhere) are already neck deep in the marshes of vendor lock-in. Nothing is going to change this fact overnight, or even over the next few years, but there are steps that can be taken to begin the process of change towards a world filled with freedom for data everywhere.

Step 1: Don’t Panic!

Continue to find and use the software you need for each computing need. We want to keep our photos organized, watch movies, write documents, make spreadsheets, and so on.

Step 2: Re-review

It’s time to start considering other aspects in the review of applications. One program may have beautiful aesthetics, but it might also lock down data to the point of having to redo all your hard work when the day comes to transition away from it. New areas to consider rating are:

Integrity of Original Data: does the program maintain the original input data in a way that doesn’t destroy, re-encode, or otherwise take it away.

Data Portability: does the program have an exit strategy? Can you export the data to other formats? Does the export function well, or only partially?

Open Access: does the program utilize open data formats that can be used by competing or alternative products? Or is the format closed, proprietary, or unusable?

Step 3: Let the People Know

It’s not enough to quietly sit back and hope others will do all the work. Make sure you start including your opinion for free-data when recommending applications or computing platforms to others. With this in mind, and not wanting to be hypocritical, I am going to start including the aforementioned ratings in my own software reviews.

What now?

No riots, boycotts, or large protests are necessary in order to get back control of our data. It took time to get into this mess, so it will take time to get out of it. Over the next several months I’ll begin re-reviewing software with the concept of “free data” in mind. Hopefully this will help make things more obvious for people and corporations alike as to what software is the better choice. I challenge every other technical blog to do the same.



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