Cheap and Cheerful

September 2, 2009

When you look through the advertisements for technology products, it is easy to feel inundated by the enormous range of features and options available.  Cellphones take photographs, function as portable music players, surf the Web, provide portable electronic games, and (one presumes) are still used occasionally to make telephone calls.   Digital cameras may be had with auto-focus, image stabilization, zoom or interchangeable lenses, several flavors of memory cards, and much more.  Thinking back a few decades, high-fidelity sound equipment used to be this way; back then, I sometimes joked that there would probably be a market for a kit of stick-on knobs and dials that could be glued to the front of a stereo component to make it look more complicated.

Wired magazine recently ran an article on a contrary trend, “The Good Enough Revolution”, describing how some products, despite what might seem very limited features, have done very well in the marketplace because they are aimed at a particular function that they perform well — and are considerably less expensive than more complex products.

Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs.

The article goes on to cite other examples: the MP3 compressed format for music files, which has become extremely popular despite delivering much lower quality sound than, say, a CD; or the Predator unmanned aircraft, which can stay aloft for hours at a time, despite being much slower and less capable than a manned fighter.  There is a particularly interesting description of how the first single-use digital still cameras were a business flop, which then led to the development of the single-use digital video cameras, which have been a commercial success.

There is certainly a lesson to be learned from all this, although I think it is a bit of a stretch to call it a “revolution”.  What we are seeing, I think, is the market segmentation that is often observed when the technology in a particular product area enters a period of relative stability.  The article itself points out that, even in the days of film cameras, the market was segmented: expensive cameras (e.g., 35mm SLRs) were sold to professionals and serious amateurs, but their sales volume was dwarfed by that of simple, point-and-shoot models (going back to the Kodak Brownie).   Similarly, in the automobile market, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, which with its four-cylinder, 20 hp engine, was certainly less capable than a Pierce-Arrow or a Duesenberg.   A Duesenberg J, for example, developed more than 10 times the horsepower of the Model T; but the base model  cost over $13,000 in the mid-1920s, compared to about $300 for a Model T Ford.

Although I wouldn’t call the “good enough” trend a revolution, it is a useful reminder for those of us who work in the technology field.  I am sure that most of us know a few technical people who tend to get carried away with designing things that are “cool”.  We have all probably seen documents in which the writer obviously spent more time on the document’s appearance (this often exhibits what I call the “ransom note school” of typography) than on content.

I once sat through the demonstration of a system for delivering real-time stock market prices.  The salesman proudly showed us how one could highlight a figure (say, the current price of IBM), cut and paste it to a different place on the page, and color it purple.  He was somewhat at a loss when one of the traders who was present asked, “Why would I want to do that?”.

Perhaps the moral of the story is simple: if one wishes to build a successful business, it is often helpful to keep in mind what the potential customer actually wants.

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