Today is the 42nd anniversary of what is probably the most important computer technology demo ever delivered – Dr. Douglas Engelbart’s December 9, 1968 demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in
San Francisco. This legendary presentation has been dubbed The Mother of All Demos and presented for the first time anywhere the computer mouse, the hyperlink, shared-screen video conferencing, email, word processing, synchronous desktop collaboration, online help systems, and many other ground-breaking developments. The audience of 1000 computer professionals was electrified. You can view a recording of this extraordinary presentation in its entirety here. Dr. Engelbart created the foundation of the modern desktop computer as we know it today, and at 85 he is still actively engaged in computer and information technology!
One thought that emerges upon reflection of his great achievements is the idea of lock-in. We are so accustomed to the idea of using a mouse as an interface device that we can’t imagine any other way. What the mouse did was to provide previously unparalleled ability to interact with and manipulate items on a screen. At the same time, it immediately froze out any competing interface technologies. If the mouse had not been developed, what would we be using instead? Who knows, it might have been something better. We’ll never know, because the mouse quickly became ubiquitous and was good enough for the tasks at hand that serious efforts to develop alternative technologies were relegated to the far back burner.
One of the all-time examples of lock-in is the QWERTY keyboard arrangement. It was invented by Bert Qwerty and was designed to display his name and the names of his friends uiop, asdfg, hjkl, zxcv and bnm! Of course, I jest . It is far from an optimal keyboard design, with some of the lesser-used consonants directly under finger while you have to reach for some of the most widely-used vowels. Still, it was the first one mass-produced and the cost of retraining everyone to use a new keyboard arrangement is not worth the bump in productivity (which, according to the article, isn’t that much of an improvement anyway). Of course, lock-in can be a good thing too. Imagine if there was no standard keyboard arrangement and you had to learn a different way to type whenever you switched jobs!
Can you think of some lock-in examples in education? Here’s my list: the lecture, grades, tenure, accreditation, the semester format. The list can go on. So much of our educational structure and indeed society has been constructed around these fixtures that it will be difficult to change them even if there are better alternatives.
Since I am an educational technologist, what about lock-in in the tech field? Kelly Ng says that to avoid lock-in it is important to consider the interoperability of the system you are examining, how portable the data will be, and whether or not it is standards-based. Will you lose data if you retrieve it in a standardized format like csv or XML? Highly proprietary data formats commit you to that application and vendor. The degree of lock-in also depends on interdependencies – is it stand-alone or tied to other apps? If it is highly interdependent you are locked into the application and its accompanying suite as well. Also, is it highly dependent on services provided by a single vendor? If so, you are tied to that vendor. Some degree of lock-in can be beneficial because it can be convenient to work with a single vendor that you have a long-standing relationship with who will go out of their way to maintain the relationship. A long-term vendor also has a deep understanding of your particular environment and needs.
Concerning software lock-in, a very good Wikipedia article says
“In the 1980s and 1990s, public, royalty-free standards were hailed as the best solution to vendor lock-in….The weakness of such standards was that if one software vendor achieved a dominant market share, ‘embrace, extend and extinguish’ (EEE) tactics could be used to render the standard obsolete. The history of SQL is an archetypical example.
“Since the late 1990s…the use of free and open source software (FOSS) has been pushed…as a stronger solution. Because FOSS can be modified and distributed by anyone, the availability of functionality usually cannot tie a user to one distributor. The ineffectiveness of distributor lock-in means there’s no incentive for FOSS developers to invent redundant new data formats if usable (royalty-free) standards exist.”
Lock-in can be a good thing, but remember – when we lock something in, we’ve automatically locked something else out! Food for thought on this historic anniversary.