Lessons in Vendor Lock-in: Shaving
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?
Learn from Your Elders
The turning point came when I read an article from The Art of Manliness blog called "Shave like your Grandpa" that described classic wet shaving techniques using big metal double-edged safety razors. I was fed up with the upgrade treadmill from proprietary plastic disposable razors, and I was intrigued at learning this lost art. More important, I found out that safety razors all used the same generic razor blade design and have for decades. As a result, you don't have to worry about incompatibility whether you find a safety razor in an antique store or buy one manufactured last week. Also, since every supplier is working off of the same open standard, blades are cheap—packs of five blades in a drug store are a dollar or two compared to three or four dollars per blade for modern disposables, and in bulk, they are less than ten cents apiece!
I was sold. I went to a local antique store and found a safety razor for about $10. Next I got a cheap pack of razor blades from the drug store, and I was ready to go. Of course, there was a learning curve with this solution, just like when I switched from Windows to Linux so many years ago. Everything was different, and many things were more difficult to do at first. With Linux, this meant spending a lot of time reading documentation, figuring out commands and repairing systems I broke. With shaving, this meant using a styptic pen to stop the bleeding!
Of course, in both cases, before too long, I climbed the learning curve and was getting superior results and had no intention of ever going back. If you've never tried wet shaving, you may not realize what this freedom from vendor lock-in means. It means if I see an interesting used safety razor in an antique store or if I see a nice new one online, I can get it without having to throw away all my existing razor blades. It also means if I find a new razor blade brand with a better price or better quality, I can switch over to it knowing my razor is automatically compatible.
Because there's no vendor lock-in and because the razor blade design is open, competition flourishes, and blade prices drop as a result, even among the higher-end vendors. I buy razor blades in packs of 100 online for less than $10 knowing that I'm set for another two to three years. No more worrying about the constantly increasing prices of disposable blades or planned obsolescence from manufacturers to force me to some new design that adds a vibrating motor. Instead, I'm free to pick from a huge array of safety razor designs from many different companies both past and present. Just this last weekend, I was walking through an antique store and saw a 1961 Gillette "Fat Boy" adjustable safety razor that is well known and popular in safety razor collector's forums both for the unique design and for the great shave it can give. I bought it knowing that after cleaning it up, I could pop in a new blade from my collection, and it would just work.
The Legacy of Open Standards
The power of open standards extends beyond today into the future. When my son gets old enough to shave, I can pass down one of my all-metal, decades-old antique razors to him, and it will still work. While everyone else in a decade will have to shave with some $20-per-blade disposable razor with three aloe strips, seven blades, and some weird vibrating and rotating motor, he will be able to pick any razor from my collection and find affordable replacement blades. This is the power of open standards and the freedom to avoid vendor lock-in.