In economics, vendor lock-in, also known as proprietary lock-in or
customer lock-in, makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products
and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial
switching costs. Lock-in costs which create barriers to market entry
may result in antitrust action against a monopoly.
1.2 Apple Inc.
1.4 Other examples
2.1 Technology lock-in
2.2 Personal technology lock-in
2.3 Collective vendor lock-in
3 See also
6 External links
Main article: Criticism of Microsoft § Vendor lock-in
The European Commission, in its March 24, 2004 decision on Microsoft's
business practices, quotes, in paragraph 463, Microsoft general
C++ development Aaron Contorer as stating in a February
21, 1997 internal Microsoft memo drafted for Bill Gates: "The Windows
API is so broad, so deep, and so functional that most ISVs would be
crazy not to use it. And it is so deeply embedded in the source code
of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost to using a
different operating system instead. It is this switching cost that has
given customers the patience to stick with Windows through all our
mistakes, our buggy drivers, our high TCO, our lack of a sexy vision
at times, and many other difficulties. [...] Customers constantly
evaluate other desktop platforms, [but] it would be so much work to
move over that they hope we just improve Windows rather than force
them to move. In short, without this exclusive franchise called the
Windows API, we would have been dead a long time ago. The Windows
franchise is fueled by application development which is focused on our
Microsoft's application software also exhibits lock-in through the use
of proprietary file formats.
Microsoft Outlook uses a proprietary,
publicly undocumented datastore format. Present versions of Microsoft
Word have introduced a new format MS-OOXML. This may make it easier
for competitors to write documents compatible with Microsoft Office in
the future by reducing lock-in. Microsoft released
full descriptions of the file formats for earlier versions of Word,
Excel and PowerPoint in February 2008.
Main article: Criticism of
Apple Inc. § Accusations of
Prior to March 2009, digital music files with digital rights
management were available for purchase from the iTunes Store, encoded
in a proprietary derivative of the AAC format that used Apple's
FairPlay DRM system. These files are compatible only with Apple's
iTunes media player software on Macs and Windows, their iPod portable
digital music players, iPhone smartphones, iPad tablet computers, and
Motorola ROKR E1 and SLVR mobile phones. As a result, that music
was locked into this ecosystem and available for portable use only
through the purchase of one of the above devices, or by burning to
CD and optionally re-ripping to a DRM-free format such as
MP3 or WAV.
In January, 2005, an iPod purchaser named Thomas Slattery filed a suit
against Apple for the "unlawful bundling" of their iTunes Music Store
and iPod device. He stated in his brief: "Apple has turned an open and
interactive standard into an artifice that prevents consumers from
using the portable hard drive digital music player of their choice."
At the time Apple was stated to have an 80% market share of digital
music sales and a 90% share of sales of new music players, which he
claimed allowed Apple to horizontally leverage its dominant positions
in both markets to lock consumers into its complementary offerings.
In September 2005, U.S. District Judge James Ware approved Slattery v.
Apple Computer Inc. to proceed with monopoly charges against Apple in
violation of the Sherman
On June 7, 2006, the
Norwegian Consumer Council stated that Apple's
iTunes Music Store violates Norwegian law. The contract conditions
were vague and "clearly unbalanced to disfavor the customer". The
retroactive changes to the DRM conditions and the incompatibility with
other music players are the major points of concern. In an earlier
letter to Apple, consumer ombudsman
Bjørn Erik Thon
Bjørn Erik Thon complained that
iTunes' DRM mechanism was a lock-in to Apple's music players, and
argued that this was a conflict with consumer rights that he doubted
would be defendable by Norwegian copyright law.
As of 29 May 2007[update], tracks on the
EMI label became
available in a DRM-free format called iTunes Plus. These files are
unprotected and are encoded in the AAC format at 256 kilobits per
second, twice the bitrate of standard tracks bought through the
service. iTunes accounts can be set to display either standard or
iTunes Plus formats for tracks where both formats exist. These
files can be used with any player that supports the AAC file format
and are not locked to Apple hardware. They can be converted to MP3
format if desired.
As of January 6, 2009, all four big music studios (Warner Bros., Sony
BMG, Universal, and EMI) have signed up to remove the DRM from their
tracks, at no extra cost. However, Apple charges consumers to have
previously purchased DRM music restrictions removed.
Google has stated its position in favor of
interoperability, the company has taken steps away from open
protocols replacing open standard
Talk by proprietary protocol
Google Hangouts. Also, Google's Data Liberation Front has been
inactive on Twitter since 2013 and its official website
www.dataliberation.org now redirects to a page on Google's FAQs,
leading users to believe the project has been closed.
Many printer manufacturers claim that if any ink cartridges, beyond
those sold by themselves, are used in the printer, the warranty of the
printer becomes void. Lexmark goes further, making ink cartridges that
contain an authentication system, the purpose of which is to make it
illegal in the United States (under the DMCA) for a competitor to make
an ink cartridge compatible with Lexmark printers.
Test strips for glucose meters are typically made for a specific make
or model. Strips designed for
Accu-chek devices, for example, are
incompatible with meters from other manufacturers. This lack of
standardization can lead to problems especially in developing
countries, where glucose meters and their associated strips are a
K-Cup single-serving coffee pod system was covered by a patent
owned by Keurig, which is a subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee
Roasters, and no other manufacturer could create
Keurig coffee makers without a license from Keurig.
While the company does have patents on improvements to the system, the
K-Cup patents expired in September 2012. Other
single-serving coffee brands, such as Nespresso, also have proprietary
Lens mounts of competing camera manufacturers are almost always
incompatible. Therefore, a photographer with a set of lens mounts of a
certain manufacturer will prefer not to buy a camera from another
Nvidia, as of 2018 still only supports a proprietary
despite the availability of the open Video Electronics Standards
Association (VESA) standard Adaptive Sync technology (FreeSync).
This is an example of path dependence in personal investments because
usually neither screens nor graphics cards support more than one
Whether a single vendor controls the market for the method or
technology being locked in to. Distinguishes between being locked to
the mere technology, or specifically the vendor of it.
This class of lock-in is potentially technologically hard to overcome
if the monopoly is held up by barriers to market that are nontrivial
to circumvent, such as patents, secrecy, cryptography or other
Whether individuals are locked in collectively, in part through each
other. Economically, there is a cost to resist the locally dominant
choice, as if by friction between individuals. In a mathematical model
of differential equations, disregarding discreteness of individuals,
this is a distributed parameter system in market share, applicable for
modeling by partial differential equations, for example the heat
This class of lock-in is potentially inescapable to rational
individuals not otherwise motivated, by creating a prisoner's dilemma
— if the cost to resist is greater than the cost of joining, then
the locally optimal choice is to join – a barrier that takes
cooperation to overcome. The distributive property (cost to resist the
locally dominant choice) alone is not a network effect, for lack of
any positive feedback, however the addition of bistability per
individual, such as by a switching cost, qualifies as a network
effect, by distributing this instability to the collective as a whole.
As defined by The Independent, this is a non-monopoly (mere
technology), collective (on a society level) kind of lock-in:
Technological lock-in is the idea that the more a society adopts a
certain technology, the more unlikely users are to switch.
The continued prevalence of the
QWERTY keyboard layout is said to be
caused by technological lock-in.
Carbon lock-in is the theory that society has become reliant on carbon
intensive technologies, thereby hindering renewable energy
Converting one lossy file format into another incurs a generation loss
that reduces quality. This is in effect a switching cost.
Therefore, if valuable content is encoded in the format, this creates
a need for continued compatibility with it.
Personal technology lock-in
Technology lock-in, as defined, is strictly of the collective kind.
However, the personal variant is also a possible permutation of the
variations shown in the table, but with no monopoly and no
collectivity, would be expected to be the weakest lock-in. Equivalent
A person who has become proficient on
QWERTY keyboards will have an
incentive to continue using
A car owner has an incentive to make use of her car, because using it
is cheap compared to the total cost of car ownership; the car is said
to be a sunk cost.
A person who has ripped his CD collection to
MP3 will have an
incentive to prefer audio equipment that supports this format; and
vice versa, for personal investment reasons, has an incentive to
continue ripping to this format.
A person who has most of his multimedia equipment interconnected with
HDMI will tend to seek
HDMI compatibility to all his other
multimedia-capable equipment (although this is a far less severe case
of lock-in than those above, due to the wide availability of adapters
that can be used to connect
HDMI equipment to/from—for
Collective vendor lock-in
There exist lock-in situations that are both monopolistic and
collective. Having the worst of two worlds, these can be very hard to
escape — in many examples, the cost to resist incurs some level of
isolation from the (dominating technology in) society, which can be
socially costly, yet direct competition with the dominant vendor is
hindered by compatibility.
As one blogger expressed:
If I stopped using Skype, I'd lose contact with many people, because
it's impossible to make them all change to [other] software.
MP3 is now patent-free, in 2001 it was both patented and
entrenched, as noted by
Richard Stallman in that year (in justifying a
liberal license for Ogg Vorbis):
there is (…) the danger that people will settle on
MP3 format even
though it is patented, and we won't be *allowed* to write free
encoders for the most popular format. (…) Ordinarily, if someone
decides not to use a copylefted program because the license doesn't
please him, that's his loss not ours. But if he rejects the Ogg/Vorbis
code because of the license, and uses
MP3 instead, then the problem
rebounds on us—because his continued use of
MP3 may help
become and stay entrenched.
Proprietary file formats that have become widespread on the web:
GIF (patent expired),
Adobe Flash and H.264.
Communication services that require membership with the same vendor as
the communication partner: Unlike telephone service providers, which
enable communication with competing providers' users, services like
Facebook are effectively single-vendor communication
Facebook is said to have achieved technological lock-in, in
terms of its self-reinforcing presence on a society level.
However, if the lock-in is to
Facebook specifically, not social media
in general, then it is fair to promote this title to collective vendor
Embrace, extend and extinguish
Network effect – the benefit from having a large number of people
using an agreed-upon format or vendor
^ "Commission Decision of 24.03.2004 relating to a proceeding under
Article 82 of the EC Treaty (Case COMP/C-3/37.792 Microsoft)" (PDF).
European Commission. March 24, 2004. Retrieved June 17, 2009.
^ "Microsoft Office Binary (doc, xls, ppt) File Formats". February 15,
2008. Archived from the original on March 8, 2009. Retrieved June 17,
^ Sharpe, Nicola F.; Arewa, Olufunmilayo B. (Spring 2007). "Is Apple
Playing Fair? Navigating the iPod
FairPlay DRM Controversy".
Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property.
Northwestern University. 5 (2). Retrieved June 17, 2009.
^ "Itunes user sues Apple over iPod". BBC. January 6, 2005. Retrieved
June 17, 2009.
^ Higgins, Donna (September 22, 2005). "
Antitrust Suit Against Apple
Over iPod, iTunes to Proceed". FindLaw Legal News. Retrieved June 17,
^ "iTunes violates Norwegian law". Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman. June
7, 2006. Retrieved June 8, 2006.
^ Thon, Bjørn Erik (30 May 2006). "iTunes' terms of service vs
Norwegian marketing law §9a" (PDF). Retrieved 2 May 2015. English
transcribed: The Consumer Council reacts to the observation that
iTunes' DRM entails that the files can only be played on a few
players, mainly Apple's own players. They furthermore believe that the
terms of service's point 9b, where the customer among other things
must agree not to circumvent or change such technical hindrances, is
in conflict with the copyright law §53a(3). (…) Copyright holders
are by the copyright law entitled to decide if the work is to be made
available, and in principle also how it is made available. (…)
Copyright can in my opinion not give the copyright holder right to
demand all kinds of conditions when sold to consumers in generality.
Norwegian original: Forbrukerrådet reagerer på at iTunes Music
Stores DRM medfører at filene kun kan spilles på et fåtall
spillere, hovedsakelig Apples egne spillere. De mener videre at
tjenestevilkårenes punkt 9b, hvor kunden blant annet må samtykke til
ikke å omgå eller endre slike tekniske sperrer, er i strid med
åndsverksloven §53a(3). (…) Rettighetshaverens enerett etter
åndsverksloven gir anledning til å bestemme om verket skal gjøres
tilgjengelig, og rettighetshaveren kan også i utgangspunktet bestemme
måten dette skal skje på. (…) Opphavsretten kan etter min mening
ikke gi rettighetshaveren rett til å stille enhver form for
betingelser ved salg til forbrukere i alminnelighet. [dead link]
^ "Apple Launches iTunes Plus".
Apple Inc. May 30, 2007. Retrieved May
^ "Changes Coming to the iTunes Store".
Apple Inc. January 6, 2009.
Retrieved August 30, 2011.
^ "Open Communications -
Talk for Developers". Google. May 15,
2013. Retrieved May 4, 2015.
Google Abandons Open Standards for Instant Messaging". EFF. May 22,
2013. Retrieved May 4, 2015.
^ "You Have No Choice:
Google To Shutdown G
Talk Feb. 23, Hello
Hangouts". TechTimes. Feb 17, 2015. Retrieved May 4, 2015.
^ "dataliberation (@dataliberation) on Twitter". Apr 24, 2013.
Retrieved May 4, 2015.
^ "Vincent Toubiana (@vtoubiana) on Twitter". Feb 10, 2014. Retrieved
May 4, 2015.
^ "Rob Dolin(@robdolin) on Twitter". Jul 29, 2014. Retrieved May 4,
^ McCullagh, Declan (8 January 2003). "Lexmark invokes DMCA in toner
suit". CNET. CNET. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
^ Babaria, Palav; O'Riordan, Aisling (14 November 2013). "A Haitian
Boy's Needless Death From Diabetes". New York Times. Retrieved 17 July
K-Cup Patent Is Dead, Long Live The K-Cup". Wall Street
Journal. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
^ Kerns, Michael. "The (Unproductive) Battle of
FreeSync and G-Sync".
^ a b c "
Facebook may "lock in" its internet dominance". The
Independent. 27 January 2010. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
^ "Can I convert my
MP3 collection to the
Ogg Vorbis format?".
Vorbis.com: FAQ. Xiph.Org. 2003-10-03. Retrieved 2012-08-26.
^ "Top 10 reasons I hate Skype". dgeex.de. 2015-04-04. Retrieved 26
^ a b Stallman, Richard (26 Feb 2001). "RMS on the Ogg Vorbis
license". Retrieved 5 June 2016. In general I would rather see
software copylefted, which is one way of defending users' freedom
against one particular danger. In the case of Ogg/Vorbis, there is a
bigger danger from another direction: the danger that people will
MP3 format even though it is patented, and we won't be
*allowed* to write free encoders for the most popular format. To
overcome the inertia that supports
MP3 format will require strenuous
effort. Even if we do our utmost to encourage everyone to replace MP3
format with Ogg/Vorbis format, it is not certain they will do so.
Consider how long we have been trying to replace
GIF with PNG.
Ordinarily, if someone decides not to use a copylefted program because
the license doesn't please him, that's his loss not ours. But if he
rejects the Ogg/Vorbis code because of the license, and uses MP3
instead, then the problem rebounds on us—because his continued use
MP3 may help
MP3 to become and stay entrenched.
Arthur, W. B. (1989). "Competing technologies, increasing returns, and
lock-in by historical events". Economic Journal. 97: 642–665.
David, P. A. (1985). "Clio and the economics of QWERTY". American
Economic Review. 75: 332–337.
Liebowitz, S. J.; Margolis, Stephen E. (1995). "Path dependence,
lock-in and history". Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. 11:
Liebowitz, S. J.; Margolis, Stephen E. (1998). "Path Dependence"
entry". The New Palgraves Dictionary of
Economics and the Law.
Liebowitz, S. J.; Margolis, Stephen E. (1990). "The Fable of the
Keys". Journal of Law and Economics. 33: 1–26.
Vendor Lock-in Definition by The Linux Information Project
"The Intertemporal Dynamics of Consumer Lock-In" (PDF) by Gal
Dynamic competition by Wikibooks
Nash equilibrium by Wikibooks
Original equipment manufacturer (OEM)
Board support package
Firmware and controls
Rooting (Android OS)
PlayStation 3 Jailbreak
Defective by Design
Hacking of consumer electronics
Homebrew (video games)
Linux on embedded systems
Linux for mobile devices
Light-weight Linux distribution
Windows IoT/Win CE
Real-time operating system
Open-source computing hardware