Vendor lock-in

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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.

Examples of lock-in[edit]

SIM locking[edit]

Main article: SIM lock

SIM locking may be considered a vendor lock-in tactic, since phones purchased from the vendor will work with SIM cards only from the same network. This creates additional inconvenience to the buyer, as the phone cannot use a prepaid SIM from a different vendor while on vacation. As a result, the subscriber must also sign up for the often expensive roaming service offered by the vendor. Additionally, should the subscriber wish to take out a second line for any reason, they must also get the line from the same vendor, as the SIM card of a competing vendor will not work. Sometimes, even the SIM card from the same vendor will not work and the buyer will be forced into buying another phone.[citation needed]

Gift certificates[edit]

Gift certificates are textbook examples of vendor lock-in as they can be used solely in the vendor's shops. Gift certificates are typically only worth their face price (no bonus credit is added), so generally, they do not represent any financial advantage over money.

Also, some vendors practice a store-credit/gift certificate refund policy in the time of warranty if they can't replace or repair the product. This is illegal in many jurisdictions as it forces the client to buy a different article in the same shop possibly for lower price/quality ratio. It's also possible that the client is forced to buy a completely different product if the original product line is no longer sold.

This policy is different from the refund policy in case of dissatisfaction. In this case, the vendor offers to exchange the article in a typically short time frame. If the article is not faulty then the vendor has no obligation to exchange or refund it unless they're committed to do so in advance.

Telephone equipment[edit]

In the United States, for many years the Bell System monopoly refused to allow anyone to interconnect their network to other networks or to non-Bell equipment. This was overturned by the Hush-A-Phone v. United States federal court ruling and the Carterfone FCC regulatory rulings.

The Bell System allowed interconnection to third-party equipment only through the added expense of protective acoustic couplers, while Bell equipment could be directly electrically connected to the network, until a later FCC order which led to standardized modular connectors.

Other examples[edit]

  • The camera industry has had numerous examples of vendor lock-in for most of its existence, from film formats like 620 film to the plethora of patent-protected lens mounts used by interchangeable lens cameras from the 1930s through the present day.
  • 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 farther, 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.[1]
  • Test strips for glucose meters are typically made for a specific make or model, as 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 scarce commodity.[2]
  • The Filofax brand of personal organizers, for example, is not compatible with standard paper and ring-binder sizes, so users can buy additional and replacement supplies only from Filofax or a limited number of other suppliers. Costs are several times those of comparable stationery supplies in standard sizes and formats.
  • The 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 K-Cup packs compatible with Keurig coffee makers without a license from Keurig. While the company does have patents on improvements to the system, the original K-Cup patents expired in September 2012.[3] Other single-serving coffee brands, such as Nespresso, also have proprietary systems.
  • Many vacuum cleaners are only compatible with specific filter bags.
  • The detachable heads of electric toothbrushes can often only be replaced by heads made by the same company.
  • Highly specialized computer-software systems (such as those used in finance, engineering design/CAD, cartography/GIS, laboratory analysis, large-scale database management, software/firmware development, or other fields) often bring vendor lock-in in the form of requiring highly specialized training. Competing packages often have very different approaches to carrying out certain tasks, hence a substantially different user interface as well as workflow. This means that the users have very package-specific skills that are often only poorly transferable to competing packages. Therefore, an organization with a large number of employees specifically trained in one vendor's software package would incur major retraining costs in switching to a competing vendor. This form of software lock-in often appears when organizations which have been using (for many years) very expensive proprietary software packages contemplate migrating to more recently available open-source packages.
  • Automobile manufacturers usually only provide needed information to make repairs on their cars to their associated dealers, while only providing some of this information to independent dealers. As a result, many problems can only be fixed by the dealers. The proposed Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would require manufacturers to share this data.

Lock-in for electronics and computers[edit]

Vendor lock-in is widespread in the computer and electronics industries.

In the computer industry, both hardware and software, vendor lock-in can be used to describe situations in which there is a lack of compatibility or interoperability between equivalent components.

This can make it difficult to switch systems at many levels; the application program, the file format, the operating system, or various pieces of computer hardware ranging from a video card to a whole computer or even an entire network of computers. Note that in many cases, there are no technical standards that would allow creation of interoperable systems. At nearly any level of systems architecture, lock-in may occur. This creates a situation where lock-in is often used as leverage to get market share, often leading to monopolies and antitrust actions.


IBM was subject to a series of the longest and most complex monopoly antitrust actions in United States history, and presented the first significant model for understanding of how lock-in affected the computer industry. IBM had significant lock-in of the punched card industry from its earliest days: before computers as we recognize them today even existed. From dominance of the card punches, readers, tabulators, and printers, IBM extended to dominance of the mainframe computer market, and then to the operating systems and application programs for computers. Third party products existed for some areas, but customers then faced the prospect of having to prove which vendor was at fault if, say, a third party printer didn't work correctly with an IBM computer, and IBM's warranties and service agreements often stipulated that they would not support systems with non-IBM components attached. This put customers into an all-or-nothing situation.


Microsoft software carries a high level of vendor lock-in, based on its extensive set of proprietary APIs. Their degree of lock-in combined with their market share has made them subject to a number of antitrust lawsuits.

The European Commission, in its March 24, 2004 decision on Microsoft's business practices,[4] quotes, in paragraph 463, Microsoft general manager for 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 the 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.

Microsoft's application software also exhibits lock-in through the use of proprietary file formats. Microsoft Outlook uses a proprietary datastore file and interface which are impossible to read without being parsed. 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.[5]

Apple Inc.[edit]

Apple Inc. has historically been well known for its lock-in practices. For a long time their market share has been small enough that their anti-trust exposure has been substantially less than that of Microsoft or IBM.

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 the 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,[6] 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.[7] 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 Antitrust Act.[8]

On June 7, 2006, the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman Bjørn Erik Thon stated that Apple's iTunes Music Store violates Norwegian law. The contract conditions were vague and "clearly unbalanced to disfavor the customer".[9] The retroactive changes to the Digital Rights Management conditions and the incompatibility with other music players are the major points of concern.[citation needed]

As of 29 May 2007, 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.[10] 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.[11]

As of the end of March, 2009, all music available on iTunes is DRM-free.[11] However, digital downloads of television shows, movies, and iOS mobile apps through iTunes are still DRM-protected (at the insistence of the content producers who make it a prerequisite for distribution on most systems, including Apple's).


Sony has used lock-in as a business tool in many other applications, and has a long history of engineering proprietary solutions to enforce lock-in. For many cases, Sony licenses its technology to a limited number of other vendors, which creates a situation in which it controls a cartel that collectively has lock-in on the product. Sony is frequently at the heart of format wars, in which two or more such cartels battle to capture a market and win the lock.[citation needed]

Examples of Sony's formats include:

As of 2006, Sony digital cameras and a number of other Sony products typically use Memory Stick cards that can be manufactured only by Sony, co-developer SanDisk, and select licensees. This memory can be more expensive in some markets when compared to alternative memory types that exhibit similar characteristics such as data transfer speeds. This is an example of vendor lock-in, as existing users of Sony products are less likely to purchase a competitor's product that uses a different storage medium due to the extra cost of acquiring a differing storage media. Similarly, this can discourage consumers with non-Sony merchandise from purchasing Sony products.

In contrast, Blu-ray Disc was developed by the Blu-ray Disc Association where Sony is a member, but does not have a controlling position.

Connector conspiracy[edit]

Manufacturers of computer hardware sometimes design unusual or proprietary connectors. The reasons for such designs vary; some are intended to force customers quietly into a vendor lock-in situation, or force upgrading customers to replace more components than would otherwise be necessary; others are the result of practical considerations such as cost, packaging, ease of design, unusual or enhanced features; and still others result from an ignorance of standards, or even an absence of standards. There may be little immediate financial incentive for a vendor to provide backward compatibility or interoperability, while considerable (though unethical) gain may be had from preventing compatibility.

The term connector conspiracy[12] was coined to describe this situation, and (generally humorously) implies the worst-case scenario of a cabal of manufacturers colluding in secret to sell incompatible connectors. In many "connector conspiracy" cases, vendor lock-in can be avoided by use of adapters.

Lossy data compression[edit]

Converting lossily compressed data into another format usually either increases its size, or further decreases its quality.[13] Thus compatibility with data in the old format may need to be kept when switching to a different format, even when decoding from (as with many MPEG formats), or distribution in (as has at least been planned with H.264) the old format requires paying royalties.

Avoiding vendor lock-in for computer software[edit]

In the 1980s and 1990s, public, royalty-free standards were hailed as the best solution to vendor lock-in. But there is still a possibility that one software vendor could use "embrace, extend and extinguish" (EEE) tactics to achieve a dominant market share, which could render the standard obsolete. The history of SQL is an archetypal example.[citation needed]

Since the late 1990s, the use of free and open source software (FOSS), such as operating systems built on the Linux kernel, free software by teams such as the GNU Project, and free desktop environments created by projects such as KDE and GNOME, have arisen as a potential solution to some forms of vendor lock-in. Such software is typically licensed under one of several variants of the GNU General Public License, a license that prevents vendor lock-in by design: software licensed under the GPL may be freely modified and redistributed, but may not be transformed into proprietary software without violating the terms of the license.

As such, users and developers of software licensed under the GPL are legally able to "fork" a software project if they are unhappy with the direction, goals, or priorities of the original project. Typical examples of "forks" of GPL-licensed software include the Linux Mint team's creation of the Cinnamon desktop environment, which arose as a fork of GNOME Shell, and The Document Foundation's creation of the LibreOffice office suite, which arose as a fork of in 2010.

As a result, software licensed under the GPL is especially resistant to vendor lock-in, since any individual or company that distributes original or modified versions of such software cannot legally prevent further modification and redistribution of the original source code.[citation needed]

Similar models[edit]

Razor and blade[edit]

Main article: Freebie marketing

The razor and blades business model involves products which regularly consume some material, part, or supply. In this system, a reusable or durable product is inexpensive, and the company draws its profits from the sale of consumable parts that the product uses. To ensure the original company alone receives the profits from the sales of consumable, they use a proprietary approach to exclude other companies. Inkjet computer printers are a common example of this model.

Loyalty programs[edit]

Main article: Loyalty program

One way to create artificial lock-in for items without it is to create loyalty schemes. Examples include frequent flier miles or points systems associated with credit card offers that can be used only with the original company, creating a perceived loss or cost when switching to a competitor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCullagh, Declan (8 January 2003). "Lexmark invokes DMCA in toner suit". CNET. CNET. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  2. ^ Babaria, Palav; O'Riordan, Aisling (14 November 2013). "A Haitian Boy’s Needless Death From Diabetes". New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  3. ^ "The K-Cup Patent Is Dead, Long Live The K-Cup". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  4. ^ "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. 
  5. ^ "Microsoft Office Binary (doc, xls, ppt) File Formats". February 15, 2008. Retrieved June 17, 2009. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Itunes user sues Apple over iPod". BBC. January 6, 2005. Retrieved June 17, 2009. 
  8. ^ Higgins, Donna (September 22, 2005). "Antitrust Suit Against Apple Over iPod, iTunes to Proceed". FindLaw Legal News. Retrieved June 17, 2009. 
  9. ^ "iTunes violates Norwegian law". Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman. June 7, 2006. Retrieved June 8, 2006. 
  10. ^ "Apple Launches iTunes Plus". Apple Inc. May 30, 2007. Retrieved May 30, 2007. 
  11. ^ a b "Changes Coming to the iTunes Store". Apple Inc. January 6, 2009. Retrieved August 30, 2011. 
  12. ^ "connector conspiracy". Jargon File. December 29, 2003. Retrieved June 17, 2009. 
  13. ^ "Can I convert my MP3 collection to the Ogg Vorbis format?". FAQ. Xiph.Org. 2003-10-03. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 


  • 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: 205–226. 
  • Liebowitz, S. J.; Margolis, Stephen E. (1998). "Path Dependence" entry". The New Palgraves Dictionary of Economics and the Law (MacMillan). 
  • Liebowitz, S. J.; Margolis, Stephen E. (1990). "The Fable of the Keys". Journal of Law and Economics 22: 1–26. 

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