Vendor Lock: Business Continuity Threat or Customers Scaremongering?


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The debate over what’s the better choice, proprietary software or open source has been raging on forever. But when it comes to web content management (WCM), the best solution may actually be a compromise of the two.

Ask a WCM open source solution provider what the major advantages of their offering is compared to proprietary software and most probably you will get the “vendor lock” argument among the top three points.

Scary movie

This argument addresses a common assumption: if you don’t have the WCM software source code you are exposed to a wide-range of risks associated with the vendor’s strategy and market fluctuations. Naturally, once the vendor gets acquired by another company or changes licensing/product policy or even worse – goes bankrupt, the customer may experience certain difficulties using the software. The multipage EULAs may (and normally do) hide a variety of really jaw-dropping conditions giving the vendor carte blanche for the future product usage and ownership. This may require the customer to switch to another product, leading to extra overheads (acquisition, deployment, integration, maintenance and training). Alternatively, product development may simply be discontinued, leaving the customer with a tough dilemma: stay with outdated software or purchase a new one that, again, leads to certain business overheads and disadvantages.

Another strong argument against proprietary software is the platform dependence. Once you commit to, say, a .NET solution, you will have to purchase a bunch of additional Microsoft technologies to ensure its normal operation: operating system, web server and database to name a few. This might be ok with large enterprises that may already have these technologies up and running. However, smaller businesses may find this burden too expensive to afford. And, again, platform dependence leads to major difficulties when switching IT infrastructure to alternative solutions.

The other side of the story

It is generally held that open source software (FOSS) is free from these drawbacks. And this is something that requires clarification.

FOSS also imposes dependence but in a different way.

Who is going to implement the WCM solution? Either the IT department or a third-party consultant. And definitely the solution will differ from the publicly-available distribution due to specific business requirements. What if the IT guys consider themselves to be underpaid and say good-bye? Or even worse, leave to a competitor with the highly appreciated source code? What if the consultant goes bankrupt, finds more lucrative work or in some other way effectively vanishes from the market? Ok, you can hire a new team or a new consultant. Or apply to the open source community for a help. However, developers tend to say it is much easier to create a system from the scratch than investigate megabytes of software code written by someone else. I am pretty sure that the organization won’t be surprised with overheads in this case.

You see, the “vendor lock” surprisingly transforms into the “solution provider lock”. Now, think what is the probability of such locking risks between an established proprietary software vendor and a third-party consultant? This is rather a rhetorical question that requires further analysis for each case. But you should admit that in general we cannot be sure about either. To summarize, the locking risks are equally present.

Same thing with the platform dependence. FOSS normally relies on certain Linux/Unix distributions and supplementary software with limited opportunities to switch to alternative platforms like Windows or MacOS (never say never!). Of course one can always hire a developer to do some mumbo-jumbo witchcraft with the source code and screw the system on another application. You see the overheads issue raises again?

Any reasonable compromise?

Frankly, I am not arguing for proprietary software. On the contrary I believe that the future of the WCM market is tightly connected with open standards and major switch in software licensing. Is there something that lies between these two commonly adopted models? Something that incorporates their advantages and evens out the disadvantages? Let’s put it this way: can flexibility of FOSS and the assurance of proprietary software coexist?

Over the last few years I have seen a certain trend in the market associated with growing number of software vendors offering a hybrid licensing model. From a commercial perspective it inherits the business model of proprietary software: vendors get money from selling product licenses, not from selling installation and maintenance services adopted in the FOSS market. At the same time, they exercise the FOSS software delivery model making the source code and an open API available to the customers.

To overcome the platform dependence issue and minimize platform switch risks, these vendors provide cross-platform support, making their software equally compatible with major operating systems (Linux/Unix and Windows is a must), web servers (at least Apache and MS IIS), databases (My SQL, MS SQL, Oracle…) and programming environments (PHP, .NET, …). Such flexibility fits the system requirements and the technology adoption readiness of a wide range of organizations from small to large enterprises. Importantly, business applications with hybrid licensing can adapt to the changing technology standards of the organization if for any reason it decides to leave the FOSS camp and go Microsoft/Apple. Ok, you change the IT environment, but continue using the familiar business applications with minimum switching costs.

Why WCM market?

What is so special about the WCM market here? The thing is that the hybrid licensing perfectly fits the market peculiarities and we already see a number of successful vendors committed to this model. There are two major points behind this trend. Firstly, the WCM solutions development cycle is extremely fast and the source code changes rapidly. Secondly, WCM technologies don’t pose significant value as they can be easily replicated. It is much easier to develop a certain feature from the scratch rather than investigate a competitor’s source code to find out the actual implementation doesn’t fit the existing software architecture. Technological espionage is simply nonsense here. The competitive advantage is not a matter of simply possessing a certain technology, but being fast enough to implement the feature.

Hybrid licensing fits dynamic markets but can hardly find its place on established or technology-intensive markets. No doubt security vendors will cherish their virus detection and disinfection technologies, protecting them with all possible means including patenting and code obfuscation.

Meanwhile the WCM market intensively adopts the new licensing model. For example, two of three the world’s most popular commercial CMS, Bitrix and ExpressionEngine (according to W3Techs) already provide source code of their products. Interestingly, both emphasize this feature in marketing communications and trust this to be a competitive advantage over purely proprietary software vendors.

Hybrid licensing advantages

Hybrid licensing delivers a number of advantages to the WCM solution providers too. This model evens out the vendor lock issue, while it allows concentration on core business activity, i.e. implementing web projects, not developing and supporting the web platform itself. By default, off-the-shelf software is notable for better usability and a more complete set of features as it is based on thorough market research and constantly developed by specialized teams according in an established software development cycle. Should the customer ask for a very specific feature, the solution provider can take advantage of the source code and API availability inherent to the hybrid license and implement it.

Ok, license fees may seem to be a negative factor increasing the WCM project total cost. However, a closer look reveals the opposite. Thanks to improved employee productivity, solution providers can deliver more projects in the same time and reduce development costs. Importantly, the vendor takes on technical support, assumes development risks, shares the best practices and customer engagement experience, and provides a range of marketing activities that result in extra business opportunities. Organizations exercise better customer satisfaction, contributing to the solution provider’s status as a trusted technology advisor and opening cross-sales opportunities. Is it worth ‘saving’ the 100 or 200 dollars on a software license for a minor project of 2000 or 3000 dollars and starting from scratch? Unlikely, especially in the light of the long-term advantages for both the client and solution provider of a hybrid license.


In the short-term perspective, the issue of finding a reasonable compromise in software licensing will inevitably come to the foreground. Strong debates around advantages and disadvantages of FOSS and proprietary software is more likely to resemble an uncompromising struggle than a reasonable dialogue. Both camps are steeped in their arguments, which don’t necessarily meet the customers’ real life needs. This face-off gives a green light to the growing popularity of the hybrid licensing, which elegantly combines true software ownership, freedom of choice and assurance.

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Denis Zenkin
Denis Zenkin has 15+ years' experience in high-tech marketing. He currently leads global marketing at Bitrix, Inc. – a multi-national developer of Enterprise 2. and website management solutions with a special focus on SMB. Denis is a frequent speaker at industry-specific events covering social-enabled intranet technologies, and regularly publishes articles on E2. adoption practices.


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