The pyramids of lock-in

Everything you use builds a software pyramid, which grows fragile with time, making changes or upgrades increasingly difficult. One task for the next decade must be dealing with the pyramid problem.

Vendor lock-in is like the weather. Everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

For the same reason. Trying to change the weather is hard. The same is true of changing software, as my recent experience with Sea Monkey proves.

(Like this pyramid? Of course you do. It's on your money. Coding Horror used it in a great story about software development. Here we'll talk about how it applies to software use.)

Sea Monkey is an open source project of the Mozilla Foundation. These are the good people who bring you the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client. Sea Monkey combines them. I have both these programs. This should be easy.

On the surface it is. A quick download, a few menus. If other programs aren't demanding to update at the same time (as in my case) it's the work of a few moments.

But then there are the dreaded add-ons. We all have our favorites. Mine include the Google Toolbar and a program that manages my passwords. (Most browsers do this internally, but with Roboform I can make this portable.)

Naturally SeaMonkey doesn't support either. Not on its first day of issue. Plus it has its own way of dealing with bookmarks. Your own bookmark folder is just one of four options -- the others are all links to Mozilla pages. (Microsoft couldn't have done this any better.)

OK, let's check the e-mail. Here's a note I need to answer. Hit send. Gaack! My SMTP server password didn't make it across. I've had that loaded into my e-mail program so long I don't even know what it is. (No, it's not saved in Roboform, which also isn't supported by the new Sea Monkey.)

I try my ISP. It's been so long since I went directly there I don't even have a valid e-mail address. I'm just using them as a filter for my web host anyway. I can't get past their password screen to get my password.

Thank God for uninstall. And after calming down I realize there really is little added value in having your POP3 e-mail and your browser integrated like that. Its benefits mainly accrue to the software maker -- makes it harder for you to try another browser.

So if Mozilla projects can play lock-in, even against other Mozilla projects, just what hope do the rest of us have?

There are some smart takeaways to be had from this:

  • Think of the applications you use as being like pyramids, with you at the top.
  • As you add data and utilities, as you learn to use them, these pyramids grow.
  • Each time a new niche develops -- smartphones, browsers -- there's the chance to build new pyramids.
  • Each time a niche dies -- mainframes, game consoles -- a pyramid falls.
  • Changing your desktop environment, or your smartphone environment, may mean destroying and rebuilding not one, but many pyramids since some pyramids (applications) live inside a larger one.
  • The larger your computing environment, the bigger your pyramids and the harder it is to change, even upgrade. Ever wonder why some businesses use 30 year-old technology? Pyramid power.

Tech businesses understand this. They see it as vital to get in on a new market early, or to define it as Apple did with the iPhone. As the pyramid grows, as people become accustomed to living on your pyramid, your ability to control their environment increases. It gets harder to jump between pyramids.

This is true regardless of whether the software is open source or closed source. It's a basic property of technology, of how it changes and grows.

So here is a task for the next decade, which we'll call (for the sake of starting an argument) 21cv2.0. (The second version of the 21st century.) Find faster ways to get people in and out of pyramids.

Ideas?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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