Lock-in or No Lock-in?

Throughout the 1980s the computer market had evolved dramatically. Large installations in the past typically ran custom-developed software for a small range of tasks. For instance, IBM often delivered machines whose only purpose was to generate accounting data for a single company, running software tailored for that company alone.

By the mid-80s the introduction of new software development methods and the rapid acceptance of the SQL database was changing the way such software was developed. Now developers typically linked together several pieces of existing software, as opposed to developing everything from scratch. In this market the question of which machine was the "best" changed; it was no longer the machine with the best price/performance ratio or service contracts, but the one that ran all of the third-party software you intended to use.

This change forced changes on the hardware vendors as well. Formerly almost all computer companies attempted to make their machines different enough that when their customers sought a more powerful machine, it was often cheaper to buy another from the same company. This was known as "vendor lock-in", which helped guarantee future sales even though the customers detested it.

With the change in software development, combined with new generations of commodity processors that could match the performance of low-end minicomputers, lock-in was no longer working. When forced to make a decision, it was often cheaper for the users to simply throw out all of their existing machinery and buy a microcomputer product instead. If this was not the case "now", it certainly appeared it would be within a generation or two of Moore's Law.

In 1988 two company directors put together a report showing that if the company was to continue existing in the future, DG would have to either invest heavily in software to compete with new applications being delivered by IBM and DEC on their machines, or alternately exit the proprietary hardware business entirely.

Thomas West's report outlined these changes in the marketplace, and suggested that the customer was going to win the fight over lock-in. They also outlined a different solution: instead of trying to compete against the much larger IBM and DEC, they suggested that since the user no longer cared about the hardware as much as software, DG could deliver the best "commodity" machines instead.

"Specifically", the report stated, "DG should examine the Unix market, where all of the needed software already exists, and see if DG can provide compelling Unix solutions." Now the customer could run any software they wished as long as it ran on Unix, and by the early 1990s, everything did. As long as DG's machines outperformed the competition, their customers would return because they liked the machines, not because they were forced; lock-in was over.