Lockpicks For Lock-In

A person picking a lock (Photo by Ariel from Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/Oal07Ai4oTk)

Fear of lock-in is overhyped right now, so let’s puncture that particular bubble.

What people call lock in is just switching costs, a concept that’s been around since at least 1979 when Michael Porter published his Five Forces analysis framework. But the term lock-in makes it sound somehow even more permanent, less surmountable than a mere barrier to exit or switching cost.

It’s not even a barrier, really. Not in the sense of something that blocks passage or access. You can still stop using a technology if you don’t want to any more. What people are concerned about is how difficult that might be. This is more a question of friction and the power of your desire to move.

If you’re not particularly motivated to leave, a fairly low amount of friction will keep you on the platform. But if you really want to leave, there needs to be a lot of friction to keep you there. This is the situation people are generally concerned about when they say lock-in: a high barrier to exit, lots of friction that makes leaving hard.

Hard, maybe, but not impossible. Whether or not leaving is worth expending the effort is the calculation people are trying to make. And that’s a cost-benefit analysis: is benefit of staying higher than the cost of leaving? Are the switching costs outweighed by the switching benefits?

This analysis is very situation dependent: what makes sense for one organisation in one set of circumstances may provide no insight into another organisation’s specific circumstances. Sometimes there are cross-industry trends that provide some assistance, but to declare lock-in as universally bad is lazy and unhelpful.

Lock-in is a form of rhetorical shorthand for “unfair barriers to exit” which overlays a kind of moral framework over the top of technology. And this can be a valid analysis, but it doesn’t have much to do with the technology itself, but is more to do with the relative power of the parties in the matter and whether or not one or more parties tend to abuse the power they have. And that is a much more interesting discussion to have.

Does your chosen cloud provider tend to abuse their market power to unfairly manipulate the market in their favour? Is there a prevalence of unfair contract terms that you have to agree to or you’re unable to participate in a market? Or are you just frustrated that your inability to do good design or perform regular maintenance means changing your mind is costly and time consuming? Is the technology genuinely too hard to use, or are you trying to paint your house with a screwdriver?

This more precise analysis is important because it provides answers for what to do about it, rather than just having a moan on the Internet. Perhaps the answer is to buy a paintbrush, or perhaps it’s to organise and insist that anti-trust law is enforced against abuse of monopoly power. Misunderstanding the nature of the problem means you’ll make the wrong decisions because you’re worried about the wrong things.

When you next hear a vendor warning you about lock-in, ask them to more detail the specific switching costs or frictions they think you should be worried about.

It could be illuminating.