A hostage to my OS?


A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:
Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.
I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, $500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.
I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I had to migrate away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? For example, suppose that next academic year, our IT department decides that everybody has to start using Tablet PC’s, or netbooks running Android, or something. What would become of all the documents I made in iWork? And so on. After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.
The first thing to realize is that a majority of the apps that I use on a daily basis do not lock me in to a Mac whatsoever. These are apps that either store no data, or create data that are already in a universally-interoperable format. These would include: text editors, Twitter clients, IM clients, web browsers, \LaTeX editors (although I use this text editor for my \LaTeX editing and not a pure \LaTeX IDE), Preview (Apple’s image/PDF/etc. manipulation program), or the two computer algebra systems (Maple and MATLAB) I have installed. There are more apps that I use that are similarly un-locked. I would estimate that 70-80% of the work I do uses applications like these. I might not be able to port those apps themselves to a Windows or Linux environment, but I would certainly be able to do the things that I do with those apps in other environments.
I will admit that there are some applications that I used regularly which lock me in to some degree:
OmniGraphSketcher and OmniGraffle, used to create hand-drawn mathematical graphs and diagrams (respectively), create files in a format that cannot be ported from one OS to another since both of these are Mac-only. I can export the finished products to PDF or PNG, but not the source.
Some documents I’ve created in iWork — Apple’s office suite — are so format-rich that although iWork allows documents to be exported to their Microsoft Office equivalents (and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs if needed), the formatting would probably break in the process. Again, if I were migrating from a Mac, I’d have to export all these to PDF and just realize I’d not be able easily to edit the source in another OS.
iTunes (which I do not use on the laptop but use extensively on our iMac at home) is, of course, available for Windows, but if I had to leave iTunes behind altogether, probably 30% of the songs I have in my iTunes library did not come from my CD collection and were purchased before Apple decided to remove DRM from its songs. Those songs would be locked in.
Any source files for projects that I created in iMovie or iDVD would be un-portable.
However, I’d say that less than 10% of the files I have on my computer or archived on an external drive would fall under this category. It wouldn’t be catastrophic if I had to get away from a Mac. A much larger portion of my data are created or handled by apps which, although they do things in a Mac-specific way, allow for exporting of data to a neutral format:
OmniFocus, the software that I use for GTD (and which is therefore the lifeblood of my workday), is Mac-only but lets me export my entire GTD database to plain text, HTML, or CSV. I’d hate to stop using OmniFocus, but only because I really like how it works, not because I’d have to pay a lot of money or lose a lot of data to do it.
My wife and I have a lot of gigabytes invested in iPhoto, but if we had to, we could simply export the photos in it to their raw JPG forms to a DVD and start over with something else.
OmniOutliner is another Omni product I use a lot for crafting lecture notes, presentation or article outlines, and so on. It’s Mac-only, but again I can export the outlines to RTF, PDF, or a number of other formats.
So it’s simply not true that I’m a “hostage” to Apple products. If Apple started charging prices for its products that I simply couldn’t afford, or if Linux ever got to the point where it works just as well or better than Windows or OS X and I switched as a result, or even if I ever just got tired of using Apple products, I feel confident that I could take my data and set up shop on a new OS without any major hiccups.
But I should also point out that users have to be mindful of being locked in and work towards “future-proofing” their systems. A couple of years ago, I was making all my calculus materials in Pages with lots and lots of formatting. Then I got to thinking about these issues of being locked in and started doing all my materials in \LaTeX instead. (\LaTeX will almost certainly never go away.) And most of my quick notes and drafts of documents are done in a text editor using plain text files rather than Pages or another highly Mac-specific program. I’ve been intentional about not getting locked in, and so I’m not. Other users who are less intentional might find themselves with much less freedom if they had to switch.
But let’s put to rest the notion that using proprietary software locks you in to using only certain kinds of hardware and software. That is really just a canard.

A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:

Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.

I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, $500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.

I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I migrated away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.

The first thing to realize is that a majority of the apps that I use on a daily basis do not lock me in to a Mac whatsoever. These are apps that either store no data, or create data that are already in a universally-interoperable format. These would include text editors, Twitter clients, IM clients, web browsers, \LaTeX editors (although I use this text editor for my \LaTeX editing and not a pure \LaTeX IDE), Preview (Apple’s image/PDF/etc. manipulation program), or the two computer algebra systems (Maple and MATLAB) I have installed. There are more apps that I use that are similarly un-locked. I would estimate that 70-80% of the work I do uses applications like these. I might not be able to port those apps themselves to a Windows or Linux environment, but I would certainly be able to do the things that I do with those apps in other environments, without having to re-create the data I already have.

I will admit that there are some applications that I used regularly which lock me in to some degree:

  • OmniGraphSketcher and OmniGraffle, used to create hand-drawn mathematical graphs and diagrams (respectively), create files in a format that cannot be ported from one OS to another since both of these are Mac-only. I can export the finished products to PDF or PNG, but not the source.
  • Some documents I’ve created in iWork — Apple’s office suite — are so format-rich that although iWork allows documents to be exported to their Microsoft Office equivalents (and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs if needed), the formatting would probably break in the process. Again, if I were migrating from a Mac, I’d have to export all these to PDF and just realize I’d not be able easily to edit the source in another OS.
  • iTunes (which I do not use on the laptop but use extensively on our iMac at home) is, of course, available for Windows, but if I had to leave iTunes behind altogether, probably 30% of the songs I have in my iTunes library did not come from my CD collection and were purchased before Apple decided to remove DRM from its songs. Those songs would be locked in.
  • Any source files for projects that I created in iMovie or iDVD would be un-portable.

However, I’d say that fewer than 10% of the files I have on my computer or archived on an external drive would fall under this category. It wouldn’t be catastrophic if I had to get away from a Mac. A much larger portion of my data are created or handled by apps which, although they do things in a Mac-specific way, allow for exporting of data to a neutral format:

  • OmniFocus, the software that I use for GTD (and which is therefore the lifeblood of my workday), is Mac-only but lets me export my entire GTD database to plain text, HTML, or CSV. I’d hate to stop using OmniFocus, but only because I really like how it works, not because I’d have to pay a lot of money or lose a lot of data to do it.
  • My wife and I have a lot of gigabytes invested in iPhoto, but if we had to, we could simply export the photos in it to their raw JPG forms to a DVD and start over with something else.
  • OmniOutliner is another Omni product I use a lot for crafting lecture notes, presentation or article outlines, and so on. It’s Mac-only, but again I can export the outlines to RTF, PDF, or a number of other formats.

So it’s simply not true that I’m a “hostage” to Apple products. If Apple started charging prices for its products that I simply couldn’t afford, or if Linux ever got to the point where it works just as well or better than Windows or OS X and I switched as a result, or even if I ever just got tired of using Apple products, I feel confident that I could take my data and set up shop on a new OS without any major hiccups.

I should also point out that users have to be mindful of being locked in and work towards “future-proofing” their systems. A couple of years ago, I was making all my calculus materials in Pages with lots and lots of formatting. Then I got to thinking about these issues of being locked in and started doing all my materials in \LaTeX instead. (\LaTeX will almost certainly never go away.) And most of my quick notes and drafts of documents are done in a text editor using plain text files rather than Pages or another highly Mac-specific program. If I didn’t like OmniFocus so much, I’d probably be using TaskPaper for my GTD needs, since TaskPaper is really just a user interface that works with plain text files. I’ve started buying more of my songs for the iPod from Amazon’s MP3 download service (which offers a very nice experience and prices that are often better than iTunes’). I’ve been intentional about not getting locked in, and so I’m pretty free to do as I wish with my data. Other users who are less intentional might find themselves with much less freedom if they had to switch.

But let’s put to rest the notion that using proprietary software locks you in to using only certain kinds of hardware and software. That is really just a canard.

6 Comments

Filed under Apple, Technology

6 responses to “A hostage to my OS?

  1. Paddy Murphy

    Trouble is that both Microsoft and Apple are perfect, working, real-life examples of monopolies earning monopoly profits. Over the years Microsoft has generated billions and billions of dollars in monopoly profits. Those billions were not earned because Windows, Office of IE are somehow ‘better’ than hundreds of other operating systems or packages but because Microsoft has ruthlessly gone out of the way to crush competition and create a monopoly in order to generate monopoly profits. The fact that their products like IE are so unbelievably bad is because the company has been able to stuff rubbish down the throats of the public who do not know that they have an alternative. That’s what happens when you have a monopoly.

    Why do you think they have been hauled over the coals so often by competition authorities? Were all those competition authorities wrong? And let’s be honest about it Steve Jobs is hardly a friend of open competition or open standards.

    Were Microsoft and Apple not monopolies then there would be dozens of competitors in the same space, their profit margins would be closer to the industry average. It is basic economics.

    The fact that you can save a small portion of your data into an open standard format like TXT or jpg text file and use it on another OS does not stop those companies operating as monopolies. It is a complete non-sequitur. From what I can see, anyway, you accept that you are locked into closed software its just that with a lot of pain and effort you can extract some of the data and use it elsewhere.

    And, incidentally, the only reason why you can transfer data across systems is because of open source standards and OS software like LATEX. You think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs want you to be able to swap in and out of their operating systems?

  2. Paddy: We have already had this discussion here. Have a look at this particular comment for my thoughts.

    In short, it appears based on this comment and the one to which I replied in the other thread that one’s grasp of the actual meaning of the word “monopoly” is inversely proportional to the frequency with which one uses it, especially in the context of computer companies. To review: A monopoly is a market in which there is only one seller. The very fact that we are talking about three different operating systems from which one can choose tells us that, by definition, neither MS nor Apple are monopolies. If I have a choice, it’s not a monopoly.

    And you give yourself away on this point when you say that IE became entrenched in its awfulness because people “do not know that they have an alternative”. But wait a minute! In an actual monopoly, the issue is not that people don’t *know* they have an alternative — it’s that they really *do not have one*. Alternatives *do not exist* in a monopoly. But that is not the case for browsers. I am writing this comment using Safari, but I could just as easily use Firefox, or OmniWeb (which, I note, was a paid product and not open source until just recently), Opera, or even IE if I wanted to. Nobody is forcing people to use IE — they use it because, as you say, they are unaware of the alternatives. OK, then, make them aware of the alternatives. Easy. You cannot do this in a monopoly.

    You are trying to say that MS and Apple are monopolies on the one hand but on the other hand trying to tout the greatness of open source products in breaking those monopolies. Which is it? Monopoly, or not a monopoly?

    This is basic economics.

  3. Jean Marron

    “In short, it appears based on this comment and the one to which I replied in the other thread that one’s grasp of the actual meaning of the word “monopoly” is inversely proportional to the frequency with which one uses it, especially in the context of computer companies. To review: A monopoly is a market in which there is only one seller.”

    I see a non-economist.

    “In economics, a monopoly exists when a specific … enterprise has sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it. Monopolies are thus characterized by a lack of economic competition for the good or service that they provide and a lack of viable substitute goods. The verb “monopolize” refers to the process by which a firm gains persistently greater market share than what is expected under perfect competition. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly).”

    A monopoly has one company with a large market share not a 100% market share. There is a massive difference between:

    “A monopoly is a market in which there is only one seller”; and,
    “a specific individual or an enterprise has sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it”.

    [Ed: Rest of comment edited for niceness. Don’t mind the corrections or the debate, nor do I mind a bit of edginess in our comments, but I do mind name-calling. Keep it civil, please.]

  4. Not only was the side remark (which showed up in the RSS feeds) uncalled for, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Wikipedia isn’t the only Source of Truth:

    Merriam-Webster:

    “1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
    2 : exclusive possession or control
    3 : a commodity controlled by one party
    4 : one that has a monopoly”

    InvestorWords.com:

    “A situation in which a single company owns all or nearly all of the market for a given type of product or service. This would happen in the case that there is a barrier to entry into the industry that allows the single company to operate without competition (for example, vast economies of scale, barriers to entry, or governmental regulation). In such an industry structure, the producer will often produce a volume that is less than the amount which would maximize social welfare.”

    Dictionary.com:

    “1. exclusive control of a commodity or service in a particular market, or a control that makes possible the manipulation of prices. Compare duopoly, oligopoly.
    2. an exclusive privilege to carry on a business, traffic, or service, granted by a government.
    3. the exclusive possession or control of something.
    4. something that is the subject of such control, as a commodity or service.
    5. a company or group that has such control.
    6. the market condition that exists when there is only one seller.
    7. (initial capital letter) a board game in which a player attempts to gain a monopoly of real estate by advancing around the board and purchasing property, acquiring capital by collecting rent from other players whose pieces land on that property.”

    And, perhaps the most authoritative, The Economist:

    “When the production of a good or service with no close substitutes is carried out by a single firm with the MARKET POWER to decide the PRICE of its OUTPUT. Contrast with PERFECT COMPETITION, in which no single firm can affect the price of what it produces. Typically, a monopoly will produce less, at a higher price, than would be the case for the entire market under perfect competition. It decides its price by calculating the quantity of output at which its MARGINAL revenue would equal its marginal cost, and then sets whatever price would enable it to sell exactly that quantity.

    “In practice, few monopolies are absolute, and their power to set prices or limit SUPPLY is constrained by some actual or potential near-competitors (see MONOPOLISTIC COMPETITION). An extreme case of this occurs when a single firm dominates a market but has no pricing power because it is in a CONTESTABLE MARKET; that is if it does not operate efficiently, a more efficient rival firm will take its entire market away. ANTITRUST policy can curb monopoly power by encouraging COMPETITION or, when there is a NATURAL MONOPOLY and thus competition would be inefficient, through REGULATION of prices. Furthermore, the mere possibility of ­antitrust action may encourage a monopoly to self-regulate its behaviour, simply to avoid the trouble an investigation would bring.”

    But contrast The Economists “monopolistic competition”:

    “Somewhere between PERFECT COMPETITION and MONOPOLY, also known as imperfect competition. It describes many real-world markets. Perfectly competitive markets are extremely rare, and few FIRMS enjoy a pure monopoly; OLIGOPOLY is more common. In monopolistic competition, there are fewer firms than in a perfectly competitive market and each can differentiate its products from the rest somewhat, perhaps by ADVERTISING or through small differences in design. These small differences form BARRIERS TO ENTRY. As a result, firms can earn some excess profits, although not as much as a pure monopoly, without a new entrant being able to reduce PRICES through COMPETITION. Prices are higher and OUTPUT lower than under perfect competition.”

    The trouble is, popular OS products do not compete based upon price. They compete by locking users into a platform which is difficult and expensive to change. I don’t think the usual economic terms apply.

  5. Paul Williams

    Well it seems to me that Paddy was using the term ‘monopoly’ c0rrectly within the meaning of the term as defined by economists and used by The Economist. Note that the Economist’s definition does not require ‘a market in which there is only one seller.’

    I think that Robert was well out of order to imply that Paddy is somehow ignorant or stupid because he uses the term monopoloy in its proper economic sense – ie a market where one company has such a large share that it controls prices in the market and can, as Paddy pointed out, extract profits over and beyond ‘normal’ profits.

  6. ghp

    On a more practical (i.e., non-economic theory level, as I agree with you about the “monopoly” business, Robert…) note, migrating away from iTunes wouldn’t be a problem now that Apple has un-DRMed their music. For the content you’ve previously purchased, you can update it to non-DRM status for about .30/song — then, you’d be able to take it with you without any hassle (it’s what I did with my pre-existing iTunes purchased library), and then any purchases from here on out will be non-DRM as well.

    As for “future-proof”, that’s almost (*almost* I said!) a pipe dream, unless you decide to work only in plain text. Otherwise, what we’re really running the risk of is *application* lock-in, or, if you prefer, file format lock-in. But it’s not OS lock-in, at least not anymore, except for a very, very few apps.

    In some ways, the advent of the “apps in the cloud” worries me more than even old-style OS/platform lock-in, because it’s a return to the days of “leased” computing as a service, where it can go away if you don’t make your payments (to MS/Google/whoever…).

    But, Apple & MS as monopolies (or even a duopoly)? Nope, I don’t think so, not unless you break the larger market down into segments (e.g., Mac OS, Win OS, Linux, UNIX, etc…) and then take each segment as its very own independent “market”. IFF you do that, then Apple is a hardware & OS monopoly, and MS is an OS monopoly (that wishes it could be a hardware monopoly).