Lock In, Lock Out

DRM sign. Used under creative commons.

Everyone sit in the circle….it’s time for a history lesson.

We’re not really dialing up the Way-Back Machine….just going back a few years. Somewhere around 2009, to be exact. We had all been purchasing our music as digital downloads for a while at that point, as iPods were ubiquitous and Apple had made what once had a bad reputation from Napster the norm. The issue, of course, was that lawyers were involved, and the record labels insisted that music purchased from the iTunes store be protected by DRM. Some of us weren’t in love with that idea, and so any music that we really cared about we still purchased on CD and ripped for our portable devices.

Then, Amazon began selling DRM-free downloads, which put some pressure on the recording industry. It also gave Apple good competition. I remember an Apple Script (which in itself dates me a bit) that would locate albums that you were browsing in iTunes on the Amazon music store for you, so that they could be purchased free from DRM.

Eventually, iTunes purchases stopped being the minority, or even a secondary, source of music sales. iTunes quickly became dominant, due in part to the iPhone’s popularity. As record labels began to realize that a huge percentage of their sales came from iTunes, Apple also turned and played the card that it’s newly dominant position allowed it to play: let us sell your music without DRM, or we won’t sell your music. The record industry blinked, and consumers have been better off for it.

The Media Landscape Changed

The reason we still can’t get video downloads without DRM is because the film industry saw what happened with the music industry, and began forcing restrictive terms from the beginning because they didn’t want to lose control. Sort of disappointing, but there you have it. As a result, I still don’t purchase movies by download. I’d rather have the Blu-Ray in hand so that I know I can do what I want with what I’ve purchased.

Fast forward to today. Lock-in continues to be a huge problem, and, despite the huge victory that Apple won for music buyers all those years ago, it’s actually gotten worse in other industries. Take books, for example.

I’m an avid reader. I think that Goodreads’ reading challenge is fantastic, because it gives me a way to set and track a goal of how many books I’ve read in a year. I don’t read anything close to what I used to before we had two wonderful daughters that take up such a huge amount of my time, but I still read a lot, and, for various reasons, I’ve preferred ebooks since the first time I read one.

I purchased a Nook from Barnes & Noble in its first iteration. I chose it over the Kindle for a few reasons (not the least of which is that Amazon treats authors poorly and I really don’t like giving them my money), but primarily because the Nook supported .epub formats. I’m a developer, after all….standardized formats are a beautiful thing. The original Nook allowed me to expand its memory, and I always, always downloaded and  stored an archive copy of my ebooks on a local hard drive. My rationale is that you should never trust someone else’s cloud with your purchases, because it could go away tomorrow. When I purchase something, I want possession of it. In the case of a book especially, because I believe books are so important, I want to know that it’s there to reference later. In the case of an ebook specifically, I want to read it on whatever device I choose.

A few years ago, I upgraded my Nook. Expandable memory was gone, but it was a waterproof reader with spacious memory. The user interface is very comfortable for reading (much better than my wife’s Kindle), and I find it to be a very elegant device to use. About two years ago, I realized that I hadn’t downloaded archives of my ebooks for a long time, so I set out to rectify that..only to discover that I can’t.

Barnes & Noble actually removed the ability to download my purchases at all. They only exist in the their cloud, and the only download available is to one of their readers or mobile apps. I have a really, really big issue with this.

Forced Loyalty Isn’t True Loyalty

Lock-in has taken a huge, and disappointing, step forward. The line between ownership and renting is blurring to a point of being indistinguishable, and I can’t help but see corporate greed as the culprit. I think, though, that the logic behind these efforts to lock in consumers is faulty. The idea that we’ll always return to a given ecosystem to purchase something if we’re pressured to stay within a given ecosystem to access what we’ve purchased, devolves fairly quickly under close inspection. Someone else always sells what we want. Because Barnes & Noble made it so prohibitive to access ebooks that I’ve purchased, I no longer purchase ebooks, at least not from them. I’d rather have a physical book that I know that I own. Their efforts to lock me in are resulting in them losing a customer (something that, honestly, I’m not certain they can afford, considering).

Ultimately, lock-in is bad for everyone. Whatever loyalty that it gains, it gains by force, and no customer responds well to being forced to stay within an ecosystem. Making your ecosystem good enough that the customer wants to stay inside of it is what brings customer loyalty. Locking in never leaves a good impression.

Image attribution: Yenny Otero under Creative Commons.

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