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Altitude vs. airspeed

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue July, July 1 - July 31 2001 | BY Jamie Myers 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


There's no such thing as a free lunch, and there's no such thing as being flexible without compromising some other attribute.



In an earlier, simpler time we accepted that tradeoff was a fact of life (and physics) that forced one to make tough choices; i.e. altitude vs. airspeed. If you wanted to go faster, you dove; if you wanted to go higher, you climbed and lost airspeed. The digital/me/now generation no longer accepts that belief and the decisions it requires. We expect technology to come to our rescue and always achieve a win/win situation.

In order to use our TVs, VCRs and DVDs, how many of us have bought the remote control that purports to control almost any device anywhere in the world? When we buy, we want the comfort of knowing that what we select is so flexible we can do anything with it. We are many times lulled into the concept that the magic device will survive constant technology changes without having to be replaced or discarded.

How many of us can remember how to reprogram that remote control when the wrong buttons are pushed accidentally, it slips between the couch cushions, or heaven forbid we have to replace the batteries? Generally, flexibility adds levels of complexity to any product but is viewed as a necessary tradeoff for the creation of solutions to problems. This flexibility is a perceived requirement for addressing the widest possible market as quickly as possible.

Somewhere along the line, we as consumers and producers adopted the Swiss Army knife mentality. What could be better than one tool that can do hundreds of things? Surely by now we've disposed of our silverware, toolbox contents and sewing equipment as a result of the creation of this master of all tools. When did we lose sight of the understanding that each individual problem needs attention and decisions need to be made as to which problem we are trying to solve or which area of the market we are targeting? Who decided that all of a sudden, we don't have to make intelligent and hard decisions? Does pronouncing "I want it all, I want it now, and I want it cheap" actually create the desired effect?

Many of my recent product purchases have been disappointing at best. Much of what is on the market was clearly designed by engineers for marketing and sales people. I would venture to guess that many of these same engineers and marketers would not purchase their own product if another was available that more appropriately met their needs. Because it is very expensive to get a product to market, developers try to address as broad of a market as possible to recover development costs, maximize profits and retain shareholder value.

In reality, we are making customers pay for flexibility they might not need and at the same time perhaps providing a product that has compromised its capabilities in order to be "flexible." Webster defines compromise as: "something intermediate between or blending qualities of two different things." In reality, a flexible product gives up other beneficial attributes that are not always apparent until a product has been purchased and used by the consumer. Some of these include reduced price, simplicity and ease of use, and fitness for the intended use.

Capitalists cry "caveat emptor." Stockholders encourage short-term corporate focus for immediate return. At the same time, we know that monopolies are bad things that must be dealt with so we don't lose our freedom of choice.

We should realize that every seller is also a buyer, short-term payback tends to minimize long-term investment, and that although monopolies can limit choice, millions make choices of questionable intelligence everyday. Maybe as we enter the new millennium, we should think about who we reward with our buying decisions, what value should be placed on "consistency" and "simplicity," and is there really a difference between buying a company's stock and a company's products?

There's no such thing as a free lunch, and there's no such thing as being flexible without compromising some other attribute. Buy what you need, not what you're told you need. Reward those people and companies that solve your problem the best. Invest your money in a company that benefits your life and society and may add to your pocket tomorrow. If you're looking for high risk/high return, play the lottery or visit a casino. At least there when you lose your money (and you will) some of it will get into the pockets of educators or real service providers like dealers, waitresses and janitors.

Every dollar you spend is a vote either for a well designed product or a reaction to marketers who convince you to settle for what they believe satisfies your need (as well as that of a few million others). We already vote often with our money, maybe we should start voting with our minds.

Jamie Myers is a manager with NCS Pearson Distributed Imaging Systems and an ACM member. myerja@ncs.com

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