Lessons in Vendor Lock-in: Shaving

safety razors

Learn how to embrace open standards while you remove stubble.

Freedom is powerful. When you start using free software, a whole world opens up to you, and you start viewing everything in a different light. You start noticing when vendors don't release their code or when they try to lock you in to their products with proprietary protocols. These vendor lock-in techniques aren't new or even unique to software. Companies long have tried to force customer loyalty with incompatible proprietary products that make you stay on an upgrade treadmill. Often you can apply these free software principles outside the software world, so in this article, I describe my own object lesson in vendor lock-in from the shaving industry.

When I first started shaving, I was pretty intimidated with the notion of a sharp blade against my face so I picked the easiest and least-intimidating route: electric razors. Of course, electric razors have a large up-front cost, and after some time, you have to buy replacement blades. Still, the shaves were acceptable as far as I knew, so I didn't mind much.

At some point in my shaving journey, Gillette released the Mach 3 disposable razor. For some reason, this design appealed to a lot of geeks, and I ended up hearing about it on geek-focused blogs like Slashdot back in the day. I decided to try it out, and after I got over the initial intimidation, I realized it really wasn't all that hard to shave with it, and due to the multiple blades and lubricating strip along the top, I got a much closer shave.

I was a convert. I ditched my electric razor and went all in with the Mach 3. Of course, those disposable blades had the tendency to wear out pretty quickly, along with that blue lubricating strip, so I'd find myself dropping a few bucks per blade to get refills after a few shaves. Then again, Gillette was famous for the concept of giving away the razor and making its money on the blade, so this wasn't too surprising.

We're Going to Four Blades!

The tide started turning for me a few years later when Gillette decided to deprecate the Mach 3 in favor of a new design—this time with four blades, a lubricating strip and a rubber strip along the bottom! Everyone was supposed to switch over to this new and more expensive design, but I was perfectly happy with what I was using, and the new blades were incompatible with my Mach 3 razor, so I didn't pay it much attention.

The problem was that with this new design, replacement Mach 3 blades became harder and harder to come by, and all of the blades started creeping up in price. Eventually, I couldn't buy Mach 3 blades in bulk at my local warehouse store, and finally I gave up and bought one of the even more expensive new Gillette razors. What else could I do?