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Linux Journal: The Linux Advantage: Locking Out the Lock-in Artists

Jul 08, 2000, 11:57 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bryan Pfaffenberger)

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"In this article, I will argue that Linux — and free software generally — provides the best defense against an odious but probably perfectly legal tactic, called technology lock-in, which the software industry routinely uses to coerce their customers into buying even more of the same firm's products. As you'll see, the downstream costs of technology lock-in can be devastating; but they are avoidable. By moving to Linux-based server infrastructures and free software applications, firms can guarantee they'll never again be victimized by technology lock-in, because (as I'll demonstrate) the General Public License (GPL) raises the costs of lock-in tactics to the point at which they're useless to even the most cynical vendors."

"Business schools teach aspiring managers how to sniff out lock-in potential and avoid it at all costs. But sometimes it's difficult to detect a product's lock-in potential, and that's particularly true when you're talking about cutting-edge technology. Still, lock-in is something of a dangerous game to play, especially when it's as blatant as the strategy incorporated into AT&T's switches. That sort of behavior can get you sued — and that's just what happened to AT&T. In 1995, Bell Atlantic took AT&T to court, alleging that AT&T is a monopoly and its use of product lock-in amounted to an illegal predatory practice. Subsequently, the suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum."

"Microsoft's products are loaded with lock-in ploys, and what's more, the firm freely admits it. And why not? Microsoft's attorneys are probably telling Microsoft management that the lock-in Lite strategy is almost certainly legal, even for a company with a decisive market monopoly and antitrust troubles. And they may be correct, in terms of the realities imposed by technologically illiterate judges and juries. Virtually all of the firm's products contain features designed so that customers cannot enjoy the product's full feature set unless they purchase additional products made by the same company; and preferably, they should also move their server infrastructure to an all-NT/2000 solution. The firm has made no secret about its next ambition: to colonize the Internet so that the best benefits will accrue to those who are exclusively committed to Microsoft clients and servers. And what's so terrible about this, Microsoft apologists argue? It seems like mild arm-twisting at best; after all, you can still use Microsoft clients in networks served by UNIX, and you can still use non-Microsoft clients in networks served by Windows 2000. You just won't get the full benefits of Microsoft's glorious products. No harm done, right?"

"Why couldn't somebody play the same lock-in games with Linux? By definition, GPL-licensed software cannot incorporate lock-in strategies, whether they're bare-fisted or of the stealth variety. The GNU Project's General Public License (GPL) effectively prevents any vendor, no matter how callous, from introducing proprietary extensions to any existing protocol. Under the terms of the GPL, you can use existing GPL-licensed code in derivative products without paying royalties or licensing fees, but you must release your derivative product under the terms of the GPL — which means, for one thing, that everyone can see your source code and incorporate your changes, if they wish."

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