Technology Explained

What Is Software Vendor Lock-In? (And How to Avoid It)

Bertel King 21-11-2016

Vendor lock-in is when a customer is dependent on a certain product and can’t switch. This is rampant in the software industry, across desktops and mobile devices alike. As we conduct more of our lives on computers, this leads to real restrictions on our freedoms.


Vendor lock-in isn’t always obvious. Sometimes you aren’t aware until you’re in too deep. Many of us recognize vendor lock-in on desktops, but what’s it like on phones?

Let’s take a look at how this practice takes shape on PCs, mobile devices, and in the web. Then we can decide what we’re going to do about it.

On Desktops

PCs involve many players, but two main ones: there are the companies that make operating systems, and then there are those that offer software on top. Both have incentives to lock you in, but they go about doing so in different ways.

Let’s start with Windows. Not too long ago, it wouldn’t be too big a stretch to assume everyone you knew also used this OS. You can argue that this is because Windows is the best thing out there, but even if it were, it’s not that much better. So what gives?

Microsoft has long used vendor lock-in to grow and maintain its customer base. The company encourages people to use Windows by enticing them and making it hard to switch away.


The U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union have each taken Microsoft to court for bundling certain software with Windows. They argued that this discouraged people from checking out other products — but both cases resulted in minor changes that did little to eliminate the overall practice.

The Justice Department investigation found a strategy of “embrace, extend, and extinguish“. This tactic worked against browsers, instant messengers, and development tools alike.

Microsoft Office is so prevalent in businesses and schools that we often have to buy the product. For years, this was the only way to open and share DOC or DOCX files without problems — open source alternatives could not, and still cannot, guarantee 100% compatibility (though these days they are most of the way there Is LibreOffice Worthy of the Office Crown? LibreOffice is the king of free office suites. It's unlikely to replace Microsoft Office in a business environment, but it's an excellent alternative for casual users. Here's what's new in LibreOffice 5.1. Read More ). Microsoft doesn’t want to help because the wide adoption of its own formats is a core part of its business. And these days Office isn’t only a product you can buy, but a monthly subscription How to Manage Your Office 365 Subscription Getting to grips with Office 365? Make sure you're in complete control of your account and subscription settings with this guide. Read More .

Microsoft isn’t the only one. Apple develops plenty of software specifically for iMacs and MacBooks A Complete Guide to Default Mac Apps and What They Do Here's a complete guide to Mac default apps so you know what's on your system and which apps are worth using. Read More , and the hope is that you will continue to buy Apple computers to keep using these programs. Unlike Windows, you can’t even install macOS on non-Apple machines, limiting your options to a single manufacturer if you want to use it.


Many third-party software vendors try to lock you in as well. Once you’ve grown dependent on using a certain application for managing projects, designing a building, or logging employee hours, you’re unlikely to switch to another program if you can’t take your data with you. Companies can then increase prices over time, confident that most customers will have no choice but to continue paying.

On Cloud Services

Cloud services free us from being dependent on specific devices. The catch? We’re trading one master for another. A cloud service stops being useful the second our internet connection dies — and that’s only the beginning.

When we shift data from our own computers to the cloud, we give someone else ownership over those files. Whoever maintains those remote servers gains control over our information. That means they decide when we can access our own data and what we can do with it.

Since many cloud services don’t let us export data, this is an even more extreme form of vendor lock-in. Not only is it difficult to to transfer data between services — it often isn’t even possible. Plus we have no guarantees that what we’re currently using will be available tomorrow.


Remember Copy? It was a Dropbox alternative that shut down earlier this year. Despite that, the makers are still trying to sell you on adopting another cloud service.

Vendor Lock-In Copy

To make matters worse, companies now make products that don’t work without cloud services. A FitBit bracelet is useless without the accompanying web interface. An Amazon Echo is just a black cylinder if you lose access to Amazon’s servers. Nest, Samsung, and others are making smart home gadgets that aren’t that smart without access to their cloud-based apps 4 Smart Reasons to Avoid the Smart Home Trend A lot of smart home products seem cool at first glance, but there are issues and downsides that you should be aware of -- problems that might turn you off from the whole concept altogether. Read More . For an example, think back to Revolv.

Google’s products are free to use and many of its services let us export our data Google Takeout: Download All Your Google Data Read More , and that’s great, but the company’s long-term plan remains hooking us to its ecosystem. Newer Google products require using the company’s other offerings. Unlike Google Search, Google Assistant isn’t very useful if you don’t also use Gmail, Calendar, Maps, or YouTube, for example.


On Mobile Devices

Smartphone apps occupy the space between traditional desktop software and cloud services — and many are even cloud services packaged in a more convenient form. Either way, they stop being useful the moment your phone starts roaming.

But even when apps work offline, you can lose that software if you switch phone ecosystems. This keeps many iPhone owners from switching to Android, and the other way around.

Don’t expect either Apple or Google to make transitioning any easier. Neither wants you switching platforms. Apple wants you so addicted to its iPhones that you continue buying each new model What It Would Take for This Apple Fan to Switch to Android There's a reason I'm using an iPhone instead of an Android. Here's what could make me switch. Read More . Google doesn’t care so much about selling phones as it does about keeping you in its ecosystem. Either way, the result is the same: swapping phones is bad for business.

That’s not to say that switching from Windows to Mac is easy, because Microsoft and Apple don’t want you doing that either. But on desktops, no one company has as much control over what you install on your machine. Google and Apple not only determine what apps are in their app stores, they have a record of every app you download to your phone. Say what you will about privacy on Windows Everything You Need to Know About Windows 10's Privacy Issues While Windows 10 has some issues that users need to be aware of, many claims have been blown out of proportion. Here's our guide to everything you need to know about Windows 10's privacy issues. Read More , but at least Microsoft doesn’t instantly know if you’ve downloaded Steam or VLC.

How to Avoid Vendor Lock-In

Once you’re locked in, there’s nothing you can do to easily free yourself. The process is going to take a bit of your time. It may even cost you money. But your eyes are open now, and you know you don’t want this to happen again. What can you do?

Before investing in a new app or service, check to see if you can export your data. After that, confirm if alternatives exist. Have a backup plan in case an application goes away or heads in an undesirable direction.

Consider using free and open source software 5 Reasons Why Software Should Be Free and Open Source Free software doesn't just mean you get to use the app or game without paying. It's about longevity, privacy, ownership, and much more! Read More . These are programs that are not only free, but if you have the skills, you can download the code to use as you wish. If a developer adds restrictions, someone else can release an identical application without them.

For more peace of mind, install an open source operating system. You can do this by switching to Linux The Best Linux Distros for First Time Switchers From Windows and Mac Linux has an intimidating image, making it seem like it would be difficult to start using it. But the switch from Windows and Mac is actually pretty easy, if you can ease yourself into it. Read More  or one of the other free options for your PC 3 UNIX-Like Operating Systems That Aren't Linux Recently, people started to confuse "UNIX" with "Linux." Linux was influenced by UNIX, but UNIX systems have no relation to Linux. Here are some important UNIX-based systems worth knowing about. Read More .

Hosting your own server sounds complicated, but it isn’t that hard to do How To Set Up A Home Server With Amahi [Linux] Read More . Look for cloud services that let you transfer their online interface to your own machine. Sandstorm is one option that lets you chat, store files, edit documents, create Trello-style lists, and more. Newcomers can set up instances on other people’s servers. Technical folks can spin up their own.

Unfortunately, you have to accept vendor lock-in if you want to use most popular mobile apps. Even if you don’t care about those, your options are few. Installing a custom ROM What Is Rooting? What Are Custom ROMs? Learn Android Lingo Ever had a question about your Android device, but the answer had a bunch of words in it that you didn't understand? Let us break down the confusing Android lingo for you. Read More and getting apps from F-Droid Want to Rid Yourself of the Android Play Store? Kiss Google Goodbye and Try F-Droid Did you know that Android allows the installation of app stores other than the Play Store? You might already use apps from the Amazon Appstore and GetJar—but you probably never heard that a completely free,... Read More gives you control, but you’re still stuck on Android.

Rival platforms such as Ubuntu Phone 5 Reasons to Switch to Ubuntu Phone You're sick of Android and iOS - you want a new mobile experience, one that isn't tainted by Microsoft, or the failing BlackBerry. What you need is Ubuntu Phone! Read More  are slow to get off the ground. Firefox OS had some success, but it’s no longer a commercial option Firefox OS Is Not Dead: Here's Why You Should Try It Firefox OS is still alive, existing now as a mobile OS called B2G. So does Mozilla's abandoned mobile operating system have a future? And why would anyone pick it over Android or iOS? Read More . And frankly, both provide only a marginally more open experience. Modern mobile OSes are far more restrictive than what people had on the Nokia N900 six years ago.

Don’t Let Vendor Lock-In Keep You Down

Avoiding vendor lock-in means doing without certain applications or services, but you can adjust. Once you do, you will have more control over your computing.

What vendors or products would you say are especially guilty of vendor lock-in? What alternatives did you find? What tips can you share from the experience? Others are waiting to learn from you in the comments below!

Image Credits: nelik/Shutterstock, Dan Kosmayer/Shutterstock

Related topics: Android, Apple, Google, iOS, Microsoft.

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  1. Dave Clark
    November 28, 2016 at 2:23 am

    Is it lock-in when no alternatives measure up? In other words, is it lock-in when you have to use and/or pay for the "house" software because the alternatives jut don't do it for you? I'll use Irfanview and CCleaner all day, but when it comes to office software, I find fewer teeth-clenching moments with Microsoft than the free alternatives. That's not to say that I'm all-kinds-of-thrilled with any software shoved down my throat for any reason, and Microsoft Office does get psycho at times. As soon as I find a free alternative to office software that works for me, buh-bye Bill Gates.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 2, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      That sounds more like a matter of personal preference than vendor lock-in.

  2. likefunbutnot
    November 21, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Android is at least technically an open system, in that its underpinned by the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which is completely free to use. Amazon is an alternative provider for a high quality App Marketplace for AOSP devices.

    Another area that doesn't get much attention on PCs is gaming. I don't like Steam, but I know a lot of gamers who won't buy or run a title unless it's distributed that way. Too much of PC gaming at this point relies on the goodwill and continued operation of Valve and I don't think that's OK, especially when there's no workable non-Valve option to access one's purchases. To be shut out of that service is almost to be removed from PC gaming. There are other options, but they're either vendor specific or nearly afterthoughts when compared to the giant in that space. This is almost tragic, especially since gamers willingly gave up the freedom they had prior to the release of Steam as a service.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 22, 2016 at 4:14 am

      You're right. I'm not much of a PC gamer these days, and this is one reason I don't get back into it. I don't feel comfortable stockpiling a bunch of games that I don't actually own. And as a Linux user, there are even fewer alternative options.