Time Travel in the Datasphere: Lock In Is Here Again

August 3, 2022

“Lock in” was a phrase I associated with my university’s data processing and computer center in 1962. I was a 17 year old freshman, and I got a tour of the school’s state of the art IBM mainframes located in one of the buildings in the heart of the campus. Remember I went to a middling private college because I fooled some scholarship outfit into ponying up money to pay for tuition and books. That still amazes me 60 years later.

I do remember looking at the IBM machines lined up inside a room within a room. A counter separated the “user” from the machines. Another room held three keypunch machines. There was a desk with a sign in sheet and a sign that said, “Help wanted.” Hey, even then it was clear that money was to be had doing the computer thing.

The tour was uneventful. Big machines blinked and hummed. The person giving the tour did not want to explain anything to a small group of students who qualified to enter the digital sanctuary. No problem. I got it. If a person wanted to use a computer, one had to work in the computer center. It was infinitely better to work behind the counter, wear a white lab coat, and stuff the front pocket with pencils. I was in. I even wore a slide rule strapped to my belt like Roy Rogers with a math fetish. Quick log, Stephen was my moniker.

I learned very quickly that using computers was done the IBM way. Don’t bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate. Don’t push buttons on the keyboard unless you knew what that key press did. Don’t think about learning anything about any of the other computing devices. IBM was the way. Why? The funding for the computer center and much of the engineering department came from an outfit engaged in manufacturing equipment to produce big holes in the ground or eliminate pesky trees from the path of the Trans Amazon Highway. The company was an IBM outfit.

Ergo, lock in. My mind was locked into IBM. Even today if someone mentions an MIT LINC, I am quick to snort. Hey, big iron.

Well, lock in is back, and there are many Millennials, GenXers, and whatever other category marketers use to describe young people who don’t know about lock in. Navigate to “A Third of Businesses Feel Locked In to Major Cloud Providers.” The write up explains that lock in is here again:

new research from Civo shows that 34 percent of users feel locked into the services these major providers deliver, with 65 percent of these saying that data transfer costs are too expensive for them to move off their current cloud.

This is the goal of lock in. Switching costs are too high. A lousy economy provides an endless parade of people who think that those low entry fees for the cloud will persist. Then the lucky customers discover the joy of per unit transactional pricing. Now the deal is more expensive than other ways to access computers and software. But to kick the cloud habit, one has to do more than spend a month in rehab. One must reengineer, invest, plan, and be smart enough to actively manage complex systems.

Yep, lock in.

That 33 percent figure may be bogus. But one thing is absolutely certain. More companies will embrace the cloud and find them with me, back in the university’s computer center, learning that there is one way to do computers. What’s amusing is that lock in is here again. Too bad IBM was not able to become the big dog. But the IBM notion of lock in lives on. And for some today, it is a fresh and new as a Rivian truck. There is one difference. That 1962 computer set up was actually pretty reliable. Today’s cloud systems are a work in progress. Choose cloud providers wisely. Digital divorces, like real world divorces, can be messy, expensive, and damaging.

Stephen E Arnold, August 3, 2022

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