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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sufficiently advanced products might be doomed by design

I've been thinking about the world of product development and the nature of staggered releases. It's the sort of thing you see with certain consumer electronics goods now, especially when the vendor does a "tick, tock" strategy. I think they may be on to something, and if it's true, it's actually kind of disturbing.

Instead of talking about an actual product, allow me to use something mundane as an example. In this case, I'm talking about the lowly toaster. I am specifically talking about a toaster, which turns bread into toast, and not a toaster oven or anything else of the sort.

Think of what the earliest toasters must have looked like. I bet they were big cast iron affairs with long handles where you heated it up somehow, then slapped the bread in there and squished it down for a little bit. Then you'd have to pull it out of there before it burned.

Let's call that version 1: it involves brute force and actual fire. Eventually, they turned into actual electrical appliances. Call that version 2. The sort of thing you might have found in a suburban kitchen in the '50s or '60s should have represented a few decades of improvement. Maybe they had better timers, or handled more situations, or didn't burn down your house nearly as often. Call those version 3.

What's happened lately? Well, there are electronic timers instead of those spring-loaded clockwork things. They sometimes support different modes - "warm", "bagel", or just regular mode, for instance. Some have more than two slots and might let you choose when to use the extra slots so they don't waste power.

Maybe the best toaster you'd get today is a 3.5. They're the same basic idea as that version 2 electrical appliance, but they do a few more things. You could show it to someone who only had one of those really scary original electric models and they'd probably be able to figure it out.

Now let's say you're some kind of toaster visionary. You come up with a device which is so far "out there" that it would be like a 7 or 8 on this scale. It's so completely out there that I'm having trouble coming up with a description to make it work with this analogy. Maybe it's some kind of orbital toaster platform which beams microwaves through your roof and focuses them on your plate. All you have to do is put the bread on a plate and hold it over your head like you've just been given a sword in an adventure game. The orbital toaster thingy does the rest.

Nobody is going to understand this. It's just too far out there. Realize that most of the world, assuming they even have a toaster, is sitting at a 3.x, or maybe even a 2.x if they inherited some scary 1950s thing from their parents and never bothered to replace it. They might be able to handle a 5 as a stretch (whatever that would be), but what they really want to see right now is a 4. To most people, a 7 or 8 isn't even the same kind of product, and they can't see how it would ever apply to them.

The problem is that you're a toaster visionary and a 7 or 8 is what you're going to create. You've already seen your way past versions 4, 5, and 6 in your head. It's just like when you don't write down some steps in a long math problem because you "just know it". It's second nature when you start creating things. You don't stop off at the intermediate points because you already know what comes after that.

However, being technically correct and being successful in the marketplace are two different things, even when no money is involved. You just have to inch along and dole out the features piece by piece, year by year, maybe even with the "tick, tock" strategy. Do you think Apple really only came up with the finer points of the iPhone 5 in the year or so before its release? I doubt it. I bet they had all of this figured out way back in 2007 when they released the first one, and have been slowly moving the "window" through successive updates.

Besides, this way, they get to sell way more devices and get all kinds of money from it. It's a double-shot of awesome in that case, since people actually "get" these marginally-improved devices, and then they go and buy a replacement every year or two, whether they need it or not.

The biggest hang-up I have with this is that it seems to require deliberately "de-rating" your own output in order to be successful in the market. That just seems cheap, and borderline unethical to me. I mean, why would you possibly do anything but your best work at any given time, barring some kind of illness, injury, or some other external limiter on your abilities?

Is this really what it takes to make a successful product?