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Analyst’s Soapbox: Is it lock-in or is it commitment?

Is lock-in really that bad, or are we just afraid to commit? Lock-in is often regarded as an intrinsically bad thing, and many technology adopters will go to great lengths to avoid being tied to a particular solution or vendor. Gary Barnett asks whether lock-in truly is the demon we all make it out to be or whether it is just a case of being afraid to tie the knot.

In advising clients on technology selection, the issue of “lock-in” inevitably comes up. Some of my clients are so worried about being tied to a given solution or vendor that they’ll do almost anything to avoid it. Vendors, naturally, seek to turn this obsession to their advantage by promising to be the most “open” and “standards-compliant.”

Yet there is a hidden irony in these claims. If vendor X is the only vendor in the universe to be fully compliant with standard A then what they are effectively saying is that you’ll be locked-in to their solution -- at least until the competition catches up. In practice, lock-in is largely a function of perspective and it can, and should, be looked at from another point of view.

So what is the single, distinguishing factor between “lock-in” as a concept and “commitment”? Trust.

Take marriage, for example. In most cultures, a marriage is a pretty “locked-in” state. The moment you complete your vows and sign the paperwork, you are locked-in. Indeed, in some religions, the paperwork is described as a “marriage contract.” In many cases, if you own property, half of it is ceded to your partner and there are often significant penalties associated with getting out of a marriage contract.

But if you’re planning to ask someone to marry you, are you more likely to say “I think I’m ready to be locked-in to this relationship” or “I think I’m ready to commit to our relationship”? Ultimately, marriage is a selfish thing; two people conclude that it is in their interests to commit to a relationship because they believe it will benefit them over the long term. Any concern about being locked-in is outweighed by their trust that their goals and aspirations are sufficiently aligned to ensure that any issues that arise can be addressed without having to tear up the contract and sell the matrimonial home. The marriage equation is relatively simple: Lock-in (or Commitment) + Trust = Partnership.

The same equation can, and should, be applied to major technology decisions. Yet trust appears to be in very short supply in the world of IT. Users and vendors alike seem, at times, to be stuck in a perpetual merry-go-round of mistrust.

Recently, I was trying to help one of my clients negotiate with a vendor. We were looking for a price reduction on the understanding that this product would be used in the first of many projects by my client. The vendor ultimately confided in me: “Every client asks for a discount on the basis that this is the beginning of something big. I can’t tell who is being sincere and who is just using the possibility of future business as a negotiating gambit.”

Perversely, technology buyers can be extremely suspicious of vendors that offer to lower the cost of introducing their technology because, to quote another client, “They’re only offering the discount to tempt me. Once I’m locked-in they’ll take me to the cleaners.”

So “freedom from lock-in” becomes a mantra that informs strategy and buying decisions. But this near-obsession can result in a blinkered approach to lock-in. In talking about lock-in we worry a lot about the technology -- “How technically difficult would it be to move from vendor A to vendor B if we decide to do so in 12 months time?”

This issue comes up all the time when technology buyers are trying to choose one application server over another. While there’s no doubt that by selecting an app server that complies completely with the relevant standards an adopter should be able to transfer an app from that product to another equally conformant product (assuming one exists) with relatively little effort; but there is another very big reason that this is likely to be difficult: money.

If you’re planning to spend $1 million buying a product, doesn’t the size of the investment imply a degree of commitment? Very few of my clients seriously believe that they will ever be able to convince their CIO or CEO that having spent $1 million on product A, they now want to throw it out and spend another million on product B. If you believe that there is a real likelihood that you will want to throw out their solution and get another, perhaps you should not be doing the deal at all. The solution to this dilemma is to stop thinking in terms of lock-in and to talk instead about commitment and partnership.

Consider the criteria you use when considering to make the commitment to form a partnership:

* Will this commitment benefit us both?

* Will the other party share some of the risk associated with the partnership?

* Will my prospective partner be able to support me over the long term?

* Will my prospective partner be flexible as my requirements change over time?

These criteria should form part of the contract you make with your partner. In marital terms, this is the equivalent of a pre-nuptial agreement. And evidence shows that marriages that begin with a pre-nuptial agreement are no more likely to end in divorce than those that don’t.

Partnership entails four golden rules:

* Your partner has as much right as you to benefit from the relationship.

* You have a right to expect your partner to take on a fair share of the risk.

* The value of a partnership increases as it endures.

* You must both expect the relationship to evolve over time.

When negotiating long-term contracts you should address each of these criteria. The last of these is the most important. There is no point in signing a contract with a service provider to support 1,500 desktop computers over five years without having the ability to raise that number as your business grows, or even to reduce that number if your business shrinks. If the worst happens and your business does have to downsize, it isn’t in your partner’s long-term interest to insist that you continue to carry the burden of paying for services that you don’t use. At the same time, you should be aware that there may be economies of scale at 1,500 desktops that aren’t available for 750, so remember your partner has a right to benefit as much as you do from the agreement.

So, instead of talking about lock-in, call it commitment instead. Be clear about the commitment you are making. If you don’t trust a potential partner enough to make a commitment, you have to consider whether you should be doing business with them at all. Commitment is something to be considered; it is not something to be feared.

About the Author

Gary Barnett is IT research director at Ovum Ltd., a United Kingdom-based consulting firm.

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