Fungible

There should be a word to describe words that sound like they should be onomatopoeic but aren’t. Top of my list of these nonomatopoeic words would be Fungible. It sounds like an adjective that could be applied to describe the properties of the caulk materials that builders use to fill in gaps around woodwork. “Ooh, that’s nice and fungible, it fills that crack good and proper.”

Sadly, like onomatopoeia itself, fungible sounds nothing at all like it’s meaning.

Fungible: replaceable by another identical item; mutually interchangeable

Whilst its meaning is far less satisfying than the word itself, it’s a concept that is pretty much central to ideas of whether you should borrow, buy or build technology in 2016 and beyond.

The reality today is that most technology is distinctly non-fungible. Some examples:

A Lego brick is fungible with many other Lego bricks. Lego spend a lot of time and money making sure that other construction toys aren’t fungible with Lego (and knock-off Lego clones are always shoddy in comparison).

A network connection is pretty fungible. I can take WiFi from my home, my place of work, a coffee bar or even a train or bus and it will work seamlessly with my devices. Whether the connection is any good is another matter, but the combination of common standards that mean that WiFi in these locations is all running to the same specification means it’s fungible.

A laptop may or may not be fungible. A Windows laptop can be replaced with a Windows laptop from an alternative supplier without too much hassle as long as it’s running the same version of Windows. Move from Windows 7 to Windows 10 and the fungibility of the laptop is significantly reduced because of the compatibility of applications and the impact on the end user. Moving from a Mac to a PC (or vice versa) is even less fungible. To a Chromebook even less (although because they are so simple, Chromebooks from various manufacturers are possibly the most fungible keyboard screen and mouse devices ever).

Google G-Suite is not fungible with Microsoft Office 365 (and vice versa). Whilst they do similar things, they do them in different ways. They can achieve the same things, but the way in which you achieve them are (to paraphrase Eric Morcambe) not necessarily in the same order.

An ERP system is distinctly non-fungible. SAP and Oracle might do similar things, but they are drastically different.

Mains electricity, on the other hand, is very fungible. Unless you change countries.

All this might seem a bit academic. It is. But it’s important to understand because fungibility directly impacts the costs of switching products or providers. The higher the cost of switching, the less likely it is that you will do so. On the one hand this might be because the product or service is so good that you don’t want to go anywhere else. On the other hand it might be because the supplier has got you by the short and curlies.

What can you do to reduce the costs of switching? Well, first of all, don’t tie yourself into non-fungible and fungible services from a single supplier to make the fungible services hard to extract. Wondered why telephone companies are so keen on selling you TV services? It’s because it makes the fungible commodity of phone lines far more expensive to switch from. (As an aside, for many years, I’ve used a voicemail provider that is separate from my mobile provider so I can switch without losing voicemail service or its archive).

Secondly, if you are going to use a non-fungible service, make sure that to as great an extent as possible you have a supplier who follows open standards so that you have a chance of getting your data in and out. With many emerging collaborative tools this is a big issue because there just aren’t open standards to cover services like WhatsApp or Slack.

Finally, get over the fact that with some things you will get locked in. But make sure you are locking yourself in to things because they are great, not because everyone else uses them so the supplier has everyone over a barrel.

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