Earlier today I noticed a post by Helen Walters where she made the following observation about the CES:
The Consumer Electronics Show closes today, after four frantic days in Las Vegas in which about 20,000 new consumer technology products were unveiled to an audience that last year attracted more than 125,000 people. This year, Samsung alone announced 75 new products.
I wasn’t there, but rather monitored announcements from a distance. And each one met a similar response: “What?” followed by, “But why?”
I honestly don’t want to knock the hard work of executives who are struggling to survive in a terrible economy. But really. 20,000 products? Each one the result of hours, days, weeks, months of meetings and discussions and agonized decision making. Each one apparently accompanied by a breathless press release describing how it represents genuine innovation, not to mention fabulous design. And yes, some of the products will probably even be a welcome addition to our gadget-laden homes. But this as the face of modern day innovation? Oy.
Vandalism, I think she called it. It’s a situation that I look at with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more. On the other, I am currently part of the problem – if only tangentially – because I work for a company that makes new core technology for new consumer products. I’m pretty sure the world does not need 20,000 ‘new’ products. Especially since a lot of these products are about as different from each other as oranges from neighbouring farms. But that’s the way competition works, there are going to be some inefficiencies – a lot of companies who flood the market with useless me-too crap somehow manage to stay alive enough to keep doing it.
As I wrote before, this is a huge issue, an ugly inheritance of the industrial complex, and to me one of the most urgent things we need to change if we want to keep our little planet healthy and alive.
I think there are a few solutions, each of them a different business model than the one the consumer electronics industry currently follows:
- Zero footprint The most obvious one at this point is a model where the products are all made from renewable materials, produced locally with sustainable energy sources, with a net zero impact on the environment and resources. Obvious, yes. Overhyped, check. But in practice, this is the hardest to achieve, because of the major overhaul of the total value chain it requires. Since large systems tend to change only incrementally, and a lot of people dragging their feet, it’ll be a while before we reach this point.
- Heirloom products Instead of making money by selling more of the same to the same group of people, we should start building products that people can hang on to for a while, and still make money while they do it. How? When it breaks, they are not going to toss it away, but will get it repaired. We need an ecosystem of fixers and easily available parts in stead of the silly system of centralized repair centres that charge €60 just to look at your cell phone. It means that the products should be designed to be reparable, even upgradable, and truly delightful to use and look at. Think Sottsass’ typewriter instead of Samsung Notebook9. We should care about our stuff again, cherish it and strive to keep it.
- Devices as a service Forrest Gump said: “If you can help it, rent your shoes.” It’s the same with a lot of ‘stuff’. I don’t need to own my laptop (in fact I don’t), only the data on it. The model could be one where we get our devices on a subscription. The level of service you choose determines how often your device is replaced. Expensive sub, always the newest model. A cheaper package will give you refurbished models that were handed in by the prime level people, and so on. Big plus: this model ties the user to the brand or at least the reseller for a long time, with all the benefits of a lasting relationship.
These last two models are not about products. They are fundamentally about the value that the user derives from the device. And I think that’s where we need to go back to. The fact that something is a ‘gadget’ means it has little value. It’s replacable. Ironically, the very people who spend millions on developing all of these new devices are the same ones urging you to replace it every quarter.
Granted, not a lot of people are crazy enough to do that. Yet. Think of all the kids that are growing up in a place where they are offered a new cell phone for free every year as long as they keep sending 1000 texts per month.
This model is broken. Innovation needs to be about adding value, about fixing a true problem, serving a need. Not about looking for a crack to stuff your latest shiny box in.