Openness is a Red Herring, Lock-in is the Real Deal

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If you are using Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it should be easy to switch to Suse Linux Enterprise Server, right? You’d do that if you disagree with Red Hat’s pricing and Suse provides a better deal. Sadly, a real-world calculation has to take the switching costs into account, because RHEL and SLES are not exactly drop-in replacements. There is a lot that needs reconfiguring and retooling and relearning. Hence switching costs create lock-in into a software, even if it is built from open source components.

Openness, in particular open source, is good, but not wholly sufficient for a (mostly) care free life. Open standards are good, but often could be better (in particular if deliberate holes have been negotiated in the standards to allow for proprietary innovation). Lock-in and the associated switching costs come in many forms, not just intellectual property lock-in.

Knowledge and skills lock-in can be as severe as IP lock-in. If you employed a consultant to build a one-off solution for you, would you easily switch to another consultant for some modification or addition, assuming they could do the same or better job? Probably not, you’ll only switch if there is a significant price difference (which is likely to be eaten up quickly by cost-overruns and sub-par quality when compared with the original consultant).

Again, open source is great, but it is too easy to think a particular type of license will fix it all. As you review your software dependencies and their costs, you should be calculating in switching and opportunity costs, not just license fees or lack thereof.


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