I have witnessed many conversations where someone accuses a vendor of forcing customers to use only their own accessories, parts, or consumables as a way to extract the largest amount of revenue out of the customer base. A non-exhaustive list of examples of such products includes parts for automobiles, ink cartridges for printers, and batteries for mobile devices. While there may be some situations where a company is trying to own the entire vertical market around their product, there is often a reasonable and less sinister explanation for requiring such compliance by the user – namely to minimize the number of ways an end user can damage a product and create avoidable support costs and bad marketing press.
The urban legend that the rock band Van Halen employed a contract clause that required a venue to provide a bowl of M&Ms backstage but with all of the brown candies removed is not only true, but provides an excellent example of such a non-sinister explanation. According to David Lee Roth (the band’s lead singer) autobiography, the bowl of M&Ms with all of the brown candies removed was a nearly costless way for them to test whether the people setting up their stage followed all of the details in their extensive setup and venue requirements. If the band found a single brown candy in the bowl, they ordered a complete line check of the stage before they would agree that the entire stage setup met their safety requirements.
This non-sinister description is consistent with the type of products that I hear people complain that the vendor is merely locking them into the consumables for higher revenues. However, when I examine the details I usually see a machine, such as an automobile, that requires tight tolerances on every part; otherwise small variations in non-approved components can combine to create unanticipated oscillations in the body of the vehicle. In the case of printers, variations in the formula for the ink can gum up the mechanical portions of the system when put through the wide range of temperature and humidity environments that printers are operated in. And for mobile device providers are very keen to keep the rechargeable batteries in their products from exploding and hurting their customers.
First, do you employ some clever “Brown M&M” in your design that helps to signal when components may or may not play together well? This could be as simple as performing a version check of the software before allowing the system to go into full operation. Or is the concept of “Brown M&Ms” just a story to cover greedy practices by companies?