Are Tech Ecosystem Lock-Ins Bad For Us?

What PC and phone do you use?  Do you have a Windows PC, an Android smartphone and Google Chromebook, or an iPhone and a MacBook?  When was the last time you changed from one to another and if not, why haven’t you?  This is one of the perennial problems facing us in these days of tech interconnectedness and it’s one that the biggest technology companies are very keen to encourage.

First though let’s look at why it’s so difficult to change from one company’s products to another.  This comes down to two things, price and complexity.  Price is the big one as we have all spent money on software and apps in either the Microsoft Store, the Apple Store, or the Google Play Store.  While there are a few big app purchases that can be used across all three, such as Microsoft 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud, nothing else is transferrable.

This means that we can have sometimes hundreds of dollars worth of app purchases, some that we bought for functionality, some we bought to remove adverts, that we would have to purchase all over again if we switched from one store to another.  That’s even if the same app exists on the other platform.

It can also be complex moving from one ecosystem to another as the big companies have genuinely useful cloud products and services, such as file and photo backup and storage, that they can use as a way of keeping us locked to their services.  If you want to move everything from Apple to Google, or from Microsoft to Apple it can be extremely difficult.

These companies can also be extraordinarily blatant about their desire to lock us in so they can sell us more stuff.  Apple is a great example of with their popular Apple Watch and AirTags only working with an iPhone and absolutely nothing else.

It’s no easier inside apps and services either.  As I write this the European Union is passing legislation that will force the big messaging platforms to offer cross-platform support.  This means that iMessage, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Slack, WeChat, Line and the other big platforms will have to allow you to send messages using their service to someone connected to one or any of the other services.

Twenty years ago, if you’re old enough to remember, there was a program called Trillian that did this.  You could use it to sign in to any of the big messaging platforms including MSN, AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ from a single client.  When the latest generation of messaging platforms started, they closed the doors and erected walls.  These companies knew there was money to be made from advertising to their users, and mining data from conversations and account details.  They wanted you locked into their platform and that was the end of it.

Its’ exactly the same with the big operating system providers now.  Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have a vested interest in keeping you using only their software and services.  They can sell you additional services, and mine your data and make far more money from you than if you were scattered across different platforms.

Don’t get me wrong, the lock-in can have benefits.  Microsoft have always offered excellent integration with their platforms and services, and the tight integration now between Windows 11, Xbox, Microsoft 365, Windows 365, and Azure brings enormous benefits.  So too does sticking with Apple with their rigorous policies on personal data privacy.

As more and more services do interoperate, such as Microsoft 365 and Azure, and in the new world of hybrid work where people are using their own computers and devices there’s now perhaps an added impetus for these tech corporations to make switching some or all of your services between them simpler, and for adding interoperability between those services, such as perhaps adding Google Docs support to Microsoft 365 and OneDrive support for Google Docs.  The question is, will they do it?

The legislation from the EU will help, but it’s a small start.  I can only hope that in the future the biggest tech corporations value our personal preferences a little more than they value our data.