I value freedom. Freedom to find what works best for me and stick to it. I even value the freedom to change my mind, go to the other side, only to run back to where I came from. It’s beautiful, its choice, its freedom. But they would undo this freedom – those who collect of our data, the service providers we trust, those whose products we repeatedly purchase to remain relevant in the information age. Our increasing need to compute is making it increasingly difficult to exercise freedom of choice with said computing. Making a selection decision in both software or hardware now requires more thought than before, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, despite the abundance in choice.
I describe these as collections of suites and services that are inextricably linked to a single vendor or provider. Most visible is the increasing competition between Apple, Google, and Microsoft, with all three effectively competing for your attention. Your computer, tablet, phone, loyalty, wallet, credit card, and word of mouth are all possible points of entry into an ecosystem, but fewer passages of exit exist. Consequentially, ecosystems even impact our long-term usage and procurement habits, potentially limiting our exposure to alternatives. For some, an ecosystem eventually instills preference or even bias towards or against products and services, thus creating sub-cultures and fanboyism. All of this exists because of the experience attached to anything we purchase.
Unfortunately, buying into an experience can have its drawbacks. Your choice in hardware is directly related to your options in software, just as your preference in software could largely influence your choice in hardware. This may have an undesirable impact on workflow if you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. Even now, most individuals are unable to maintain their digital lifestyle, as is, without the use of proprietary systems – and this remains true even as open source alternatives gain unavailing momentum. Despite what marketing implies, the business models employed by the organizations we rely on are designed to their benefit above that of the customer. That is why Microsoft Office is still a Windows-first product (and service), that is why YouTube requires Gmail credentials, that is why iWork remains an OS X and iOS exclusive.
The answer to why we are being locked-in is the simple truth that it is easy to do so when usage and market-share looks handsome. This adversity exists in an untold number of ways for people with even the simplest of needs. One only needs to think of users who have an iTunes library to their name but prefer an Android device in their pocket. Such an individual is left with no choice but to make use of PC or Mac in order to facilitate syncing to their Android device of choice. The requisite computer is optional for users with an iTunes library and iOS device only – a fact which adds complexity to purchasing decisions and encourages lock-in to Apple’s ecosystem and products. Of course, similar scenarios exist throughout the industry, to the annoyance of consumers who have above-average needs.
I suppose locking customers in is a safety net for the bottom-line. Its been an effective practice since gaming consoles were no longer a niche product and console-makers would lock gamers in with exclusive titles. I’m just not convinced that the biggest players in tech are fully concerned with offering the best solutions for the consumer. The majority of their new software innovations are intended to lock us out of competitors by locking us into their hardware, accessories, ecosystems, and content. Be it Yahoo or Microsoft, or Amazon etc, no one is innocent, and everyone is actively participating in locking their customers in.