Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Increasing product value

So far, in my past posts, I have described the problem : how do we increase the value provided to end users in products?

Now for the solution:

Companies will shift their focus to providing end user value only if end users hold the power of how much and when they pay for the goods they receive. If there is sufficient revenue to be made directly by customers valuing their offerings high enough to make margins. Today, end users will not typically pay for a new product unless they are forced to pay upfront, because they have reached a defensive homeostatis with the industry and the government where they will avoid paying anything except when they are forced to by social, socio-moral or legal decree. Also, anything offered for free is looked upon with skepticism. (This unbelievably cool software download must be a Trojan horse or a virus or something – why else would it be free?)

The only way to break out of this stalemate is for someone to take the first step by providing products of high value to the user, allowing the user to use, value and pay after using it. It is crucial to invest minimally in such an effort and be willing to sustain several months, even years of low or no income. Hence, that restricts the domain to areas where the investment is very low, such as web based software and content, and once that is established, marketplaces for such software and content to be built, exchanged, etc. collaboratively.

The easiest way to ensure maximum value to end customers is to focus on solving problems that we understand as an end user. Any indirection (even if done as an expert user study) dilutes the clarity of the problem, and the solution diverges at least a bit from the user’s expectation (for instance, if we try to solve the problem of enterprise customers working on machine tools, we may not do as good a job, because we will never understand the space as well as we understand our own problems, as users of technology).

So, to summarize, the model is:

  1. To create value in areas which have low initial investment. For example:
    1. build software that addresses a problem that I personally face with technology
    2. create content – writing, music, painting, photography – value of content is of course more subjective than technology, but it still is valuable to someone who enjoys such content.
  2. Use/refine the software/content till I see value for others in it
  3. Host the software/content for others to use
  4. Provide the solution on a use-value-pay model where the user uses the software, and then values the product and finally pays what it is worth. For content, the user uses the content and then pays for it based on honest valuation of what it was worth to him/her.
  5. Provide incentives and focus on valuing as separate from paying: i.e, the user can value software as something, but pay less because they cannot afford the amount they value it as.
  6. User is under no pressure to pay. The value has to become compelling enough for people to value and pay for it. This is the strongest incentive for companies to be sincere about providing value.
  7. If some valuable offerings are served up in this model, and if people start paying sincerely based on this model, then eventually more and more companies can tap into this potential market and model (analogous to the way companies are jumping onto the trend of the day – sharing video and images on the web, collective wisdom based web portals, etc.)

That is what I plan to do next. Work on creating software and/or content that is built and distributed based on the model I have described above. I will post updates on my progress as I reach significant milestones in this exercise - probably a few weeks from now.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Money for nothing - III

Continued from part 1 and part 2

The goal of the (admittedly long) list of examples in the previous parts is to set the stage for the following argument:

1. Buyers have little control over how they pay for goods and services.
2. Sellers are interested in getting buyers to pay at the earliest which facilitates buyers to minimize the total expense incurred on that buyer, from sales, through the product/service delivery and its support. Buyers, as a consequence rarely have the opportunity to try things before valuing them.
3. Due to this long tradition of sellers dictating the value of goods, people have lost the skill to value goods objectively.
4. Due to the buyer's decreasing control on determining the value of goods, they play a lesser role in demanding what they need from a given product or service.
5. As a consequence, sellers have turned to investing more in finding ways to make buyers pay as much as possible as early as possible, so they can in turn spend the least possible amount on the goods.
6. In the end, buyers suffer, since they dont get what they want. Companies suffer, since the customer has less and less faith in the value of the offerings from companies, and it becomes increasingly harder to convince the customer to buy new technology without resorting to negative strategies.

Many people have reacted to this argument that all this is obvious, but that is how it is, and what can we do about it? I agree that we cannot fix this overnight, but there are small steps we can take towards addressing this problem, at least specifically in the software domain, which has some unique advantages.

That is next up.

Money for nothing - II

Continued from part 1 ...

5. Pay me even if you don't use:

Companies are interested in sustained cash flow. They have hence come to prefer getting 5 bucks a month for what they offer rather than a one shot fee of a 100 bucks. This also has the advantage of enticing customers - 10 bucks sounds an affordable amount every month, whereas 100 bucks may be a lot to spend upfront. Hence, the arrival of subscription services and the wave of more and more subscription based services. I sign up for this cool service, say a local gym. I pay 50 bucks a month for my membership. I use the gym regularly for three months. Then, life catches up and I slip up for a couple of months. Now, I am a bit annoyed by having to pay fifty bucks for the two months that I didnt use the gym at all. I consider cancelling my membership. But, as always, there is a catch - a closing cost, or at least there is some cost to reenrolling two months from now, when I want to restart. Same thing with subscription based web services. I would much prefer to make micropayments as I go for services that I use intermittently, but the option is rarely available. Most online video rental services charge a monthly fee, irrespective of whether I use the service. IIn a busy month, when I dont want to watch movies, I have two choices - pay money for nothing, or use the service even when I dont want it. I have seen a new model emerge on an Indian movie dvd rental site that charges a reasonable amount per use, subject to a maximum monthly cap. Much more customer friendly.

6. Get hooked:

The other great model to ensure sustained revenue is the two year agreement from cell phone companies. I cannot see any justification for that, barring the lack of confidence of my phone company to continue providing value. In other words, what the agreement really means is: I dont think I can keep you interested in using my service for the next few years, but I need your money nevertheless, so just sign the money for the next two years over. Of course, you have the choice to pay ten times as much for your phone. You also have the flexibility to cancel the service, pay me the hefty penalty and buy another phone or switch companies, but the only thing I am sure of is that I cannot keep you interested and committed for the next two years. There is definitely something wrong with the service or the phone that will annoy you and you will wish to switch, and I cannot afford losing you.

7. How much?

Remember the time when hawkers used to ask the customer this question? It still happens. In flea markets, probably in some obscure markets somewhere else, but in general, it is history. In most cases today, it is almost always the customer who asks the question how much, and then decides whether to buy the good or not based on the price. The only model that at least halfway resembles this in the mainstream today, and is for that reason widely popular, is on online auction sites. Here the customer is still at the mercy of the market, but at least the buyers determine the value of the product, and not the seller. An important limitation here is that customers are still stuck with the product, or have to take the pains to return the product if it doesnt match their needs.

Next up: the concluding part 3 of this series.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Money for nothing - I

In my previous posts, I complained that people did not receive value for the money, time and energy they spent. Maybe I wasn’t painting the whole picture. People can only be expected to do what they have to do, and no more. So, I began thinking about what motivated companies and people to provide more value. This is the first in a series of articles that examines different scenarios:

  1. Thanks for your business

Realistically, at least in the US, where I live, doctors are usually paid by the insurance company, and you or your employer has already paid the insurance company. So, now every cent spent on you at a doctor's visit is extravagant if it can be avoided. So, the hospital staff, the doctors, may all smile at you, greet you, joke with you, but all they really have to worry about is a) that you are happy enough that you don’t give them a bad rap (or worse, sue them), will keep coming to them, so they can bill your insurance b) that you are billed for as much as possible, but not too much, since the insurance company will question charges beyond a point, and c) see if they can get you to spend some more out of your pocket.

This is the case with any purchase, though. Once you have paid the money for a good, the seller has the opportunity to lower expenses spent on you. So, it is in the interest of every business to charge you as early as they can. Another example of this is that once you buy software and the support contract, the quality of support is as inexpensive and crappy as the company can get away with.

An extreme example of this that I have observed in some movie theaters back in India that in the last show of the day, they shut off the air conditioning about a half hour before the movie ends, to save costs. Usually, the whole audience is sweating profusely by the time the movie ends. I have protested this often, but to no effect. After all, I had already paid them, right? So I didnt exist .

  1. Free Brainwash

But wait! There are free services of excellent quality, right? For instance, there are so many great web based portals/applications/search engines, where I don’t pay a dime, but I get all the fantastic experience for free. Not really. I have a friend who used to be very close and dear to me once. We would drop into each other’s house, hang out, have a good time. Then one day, I went to his house, and he had taken up a new job as an insurance agent. He would incessantly bug me by trying to get me to take his policy. I got so annoyed, I stopped meeting with him. I wanted to have a good time with him, not buy his policy. Coming back to the free web portal, I get bombarded with ads (some of them are supposed to be targeted and relevant to what I am doing, but that still makes no difference. My friend insisted that the insurance policy was really for me, and that it was very relevant to the things going on in my financial life, etc. Thanks, but no thanks. Targeted or not, I come to a place to do what I want to do there, and if someone doesn’t understand no – like my friend, or even have a way for me to say no – like the portal, then I don’t want to deal with them.)

  1. Paid Brainwash

I have been out of touch with development technology for a while, and recently looked at getting certified on some of my rustier areas. I tried a sample test on a design related topic, and was surprised to see that several questions were, though multiple choice, geared to get me to parrot the value of the technology. For instance, there were questions like: which of the following is an advantage of ___________? A, b, c, d and e :all of the above, which was the correct answer. I did not realize how that would make me a better designer to parrot the advantages of a technology. I would much prefer to be tested on actual design problems rather than being asked to memorize the marketing spiel of the company. And the irony is that I had to pay to get ‘certified’.

  1. Just milk

A traditional grocery store in India consists of a counter behind which the grocers. Customers line up in front of the counter, and ask what they need and the grocer gets and packages the item for them, often chatting about the weather or local gossip. The motivation behind this model is probably some combination of a) cheap labor in India, b) more risk of shoplifting if people are allowed to shop for themselves as in a supermarket and c) people are less in a hurry, and are willing to wait, or come back later if it is crowded. These are being replaced by malls, much like the ones in the US, but I have seen the transition over the years in India. At first there were such traditional stores, where all you saw and interacted with were the employees. Then, as corporate branding and advertisement became more prevalent, ads and glow signs drowned the grocer with their flashy colors and lights. People would stand agape at the ads, and talk to the grocer, barely looking at him. And now, these traditional grocers are being slowly but steadily replaced at least in the Indian cities by the ultimate advertising machine – the supermarket. If I need milk, I have to walk through aisles of products displaying their messages to get the one thing I came for. And now, I have the opportunity to self checkout – eliminating the need to interact with (or for the store to pay for) any employee for the entire transaction. The traditional grocer model is effectively absent in the US, except perhaps in gun stores.

Continued in part 2.

The Good Work

If I don't have the money to afford the food, shelter, clothing that I need, then any work is good work. Once I have enough to survive, though, be it through savings, investments, a lottery, or by any other means, good work takes on an entirely new meaning. Earning money becomes more important than just getting it. The purpose of what I do takes on more relevance. In this state of mind, what work used to be satisfying, pleasurable even, seems stifling. I begin to question the value of what I am doing to the customer, and whether I deserve the money I am getting in my job.

If I get the sense that I am building products that are sold largely by marketing, branding, or any such means other than the intrinsic value of the offering, I feel less motivated to produce the best. After all, whether or not someone buys my product is almost independent of what I create, and in many cases, the success of my company bears no correlation to the effort I put in, so why should I break my back on it? In software in particular, people buy stuff with either the zombied faith in pre-sales messages of what it'll do for them, or with the resigned acceptance that the product will be well short of what they need, that bugs will pop up at anytime, and they have to deal with it anyway. It may even give many IT department experts and consultants/system integrators a sense of job security that they have so much more work to patch the issues in new technology.

As a producer of technology, I wonder what difference my software has made in the lives of my customer. And anything that comes to mind is debatable. The main things I have gained from computer technology after spending thousands of dollars every year for the last decade or two, are ability to talk better(email), find better(web search) and broadcast better(web publishing). And I see very little work today that is even trying to make any of these experiences better, though many may claim to do so, which is the selling part. The value of process automation in my life is debatable, since in many cases, automation cuts down the flexibility that was available through human interaction (how many times have you found the options presented on an online commerce site or automated support responses on phone inadequate?). You may disagree on this one, but I am sure everyone has had the question "Why the !@#$%^ don't they __________?" while trying to do something on a website or on a phone system.

And even these experiences are still in their infancy when it comes to the user's experience.

For instance, all popular email clients provide a default view that has 20-50 messages listed on the screen when you log in. No one can really act on all of these messages in any meaningful way, except maybe to delete them. Then why are all these emails in my face?

And we all know about search. How many redundant sites, ads, search query variations do we have to go through to find anything new, even in the best of search tools?

In terms of publishing myself, how much do I need to spend in time, money and effort, to get people to see my site today? How many bells and whistles do I need to add over my main message (which is often as simple as "I sell great ice cream. Everyone come and buy from me!") to keep people on my site long enough?

And above all this, how useful has technology been to improve the productivity of users? My ideal experience in being productive would be to have a simple tool that I feed in everything relevant - my tasks, my email, links from the web, my appointments, my rules/preferences, etc. and the tool in turn, at any time tells me what I need to do next. In spite of a gazillion tools I have invested in, I don't still have that ideal experience. Is anyone doing anything about that?
I am not claiming that these are easy problems to solve. However, these things are what I would consider valuable to me. Most of my tech spending, usually in hindsight, is a huge waste and a victim of very creative marketing, branding and selling.

So, what then, is good work? The farmer, who lovingly ploughs his land, sows, nourishes and harvests his grain, with pride on the fruit of his effort and the assurance that the crop will feed someone is good work. An artist who creates his work passionately is doing good work.

What would be the equivalent of the proud farmer's work in the software industry? It would be to attempt to solve real customer problems, and to enhance the value of technology to the customers, as verified by the customer after using the product, and not the media or the salesmen of the product company.

So good work, in summary, is creating something that customers value after using it, and creative work, which gives pleasure irrespective of how well it is received.

Even if I do good work and put it up, it is possible that people don't accept it enough to try it. This is due to the sad skepticism with which we view everything today. The solution lies in the buying experience and the revenue model, coming up next.

Company or human - choose!

A company is a lot like any other animal. Granted, it doesnt have body odor or the kind of libido that humans and skunks share, but it is possible to mistake a company for a man if you see it walk past you on the street, if it could. Check out the overwhelming similarities:
  1. Both are lumps of smaller units that work collectively for its good (employees work for the company, and organs->tissues->cells for the human body).
  2. In both cases, the individual units are of lesser importance than the whole.
  3. Both companies and humans have a legal status as an entity with rights, responsibilities, etc.
  4. Both companies and humans can be happy or sad or angry or heartbroken or shy or outspoken, in a truistic sense.
  5. Both grow and survive, and are both usually interested in growing and surviving.
  6. Both die, eventually, or if some religious theories are to be accepted, are reborn in other forms.
Now, 'intelligent' design notwithstanding, Darwinian natural selection dictates that companies will compete with humans and other beings for survival and dominance. Let's see how they are doing.
  1. Companies set rules for the humans they deal with, and the humans accept or are forced to accept them.
    1. Companies spend infinite resources on lawyers refining their employee agreements, and employees usually sign them.
    2. Companies define what they provide to their customers, and in many cases, customers pay first and use later.
      1. Consider, for example, the activity of browsing through a music store. You are hit by aisles and aisles of music CDs that you buy either based on trust in the singer, or on how well the CD cover has been designed(which incidentally is done in most cases by someone completely different from the artist, and even if the artist did it herself, they may well be better designers than musicians).
      2. In most large grocery stores, notice how many common commodity items (dairy, eggs, meat) are stocked far away from the entrance, forcing you to walk through labyrinths of enticing goods from chocolates to magazines with shiny covers. Again, the company (the grocer) decides what you should see. How many times have you walked into a store to buy a can of milk and landed up buying ten other things alongside?
    3. Companies decide what employees can do with their time, resources and brains, whereas an individual employee has almost no say on how the company sells its resources.
    4. It is widely believed that a person can decide what to do with her money. Let us take computers and software, as an example. Since the arrival of a computer in the common man's home, about twenty five years ago, many people routinely spend some money every year on technology - hardware upgrades, software, operating system upgrades, application upgrades, etc..
      A reasonable question to ask may be, why would we want to upgrade our software when software from a decade ago still works fine for my needs? But I usually have no choice, since some essential software in its current generation forces us to upgrade. For example, older browsers wont support the newer web pages, and newer browsers wont run on older operating systems. So, we have to upgrade, spending time, money, and a lot of frustration through the upgrade process, to get something that does exactly what we were able to do before. But let us set aside the question of upgrades and ask ourselves, what value has technology really brought to our lives today? In my life, there are only three things that technology has changed that has been of significant value to me:
      1. reach and speed of communication (email, etc.) ,
      2. ability to find previously unfindable information instantly (search engines, etc.) and
      3. opportunity to express myself (blogs, web pages, etc.). And all these things have been available for a long time now, and they are available for free as well on the internet. Then why have I been spending the money I have spent every year on upgrading technology? I believe, in my case, that I have been suckered by top notch marketing, to spend my money where I would much rather not have spent it.
    5. The trend described above is not exclusive to the software industry. People get less and less of value in return for more and more of expense in almost every field. Frequency of upgrading everything in our lives has increased. Every dollar that a family has (or will have, in terms of creditworthiness) is constantly stalked by various companies to bite off the largest piece with the least cost to the company (both in producing the good and in supporting it after it is delivered).
So, the corporation is clearly winning, and the individual human (defined as a human with individual choice of his actions) is fast losing out.

Why is it that corporations are winning? It seems obvious isnt it? Humans are constrained by various factors to hold back their basal instincts towards other people. Society, culture, tradition, the law, all work together to restrain a person to live, but restrain almost every impulse that comes his way. And this is required to avoid complete anarchy in society as well. However, the companies are allowed to roam wilder and are not as constrained in what they are allowed to do.
  1. A company can "kill" other companies - that is called competitive advantage, even if it is done by means like unleashing an archaic patent on a successful product.
  2. A company can fire employees, even tens of thousands overnight, but there is no system that allows an individual the power to do the same with tens of thousands of companies.
  3. A company can spam the user through every medium possible - mail, email, phone calls, everything goes - and not much is done to stop it. But a company can prosecute a solicitor for trespassing if they have a 2 point font notice on their glass door which says they can.
  4. A company can even kill human beings, as long as they have the money to get away with it. Case in point: cigarette companies. If a person grows marijuana in his home garden and sells it to a friend, he can be jailed for it, but a cigarette company can make something at least as harmful and sell it, killing thousands every year, and get away with it, just because they can.
Maybe some day, not too far in the future, there will only be companies and employees,. The paychecks are automatically distributed between other companies and reconciled between them as intercompany transactions at the end of the day. People smile triumphantly at television and computer screens, fully convinced they are getting more than their money's worth. What a deal!

Friday, May 26, 2006

A semi-fictitious history of value

In the beginning there were a lot less people. People migrated to fertile regions of abundant resources, usually besides a plentiful river, and usually there were enough resources to satisfy the needs of the people. When it got crowded, people moved to other fertile regions and this went on for a while. Meanwhile, more needs arose, and people invented bartering. The cowherd would trade milk for grains from the farmer. And this led to a richer quality of life. A shepherd could focus on rearing sheep and still get milk, grain and wood in exchange for his wool.

Leap forward many years, and man invented an abstract form of currency. Maybe it began due to seasonal demands - if grain was harvested and available only in a part of the year, then the farmer needed to have some means to sell it, and then get wool later in the winter. This was made possible in the form of coins, and later joined by notes to form money. So far, so good. Each person had an honest commitment to create the best quality of good to provide to get the most money, so they could afford the best for themselves and their families round the year.

Then came other abstractions of value, further removed from money, to make money. As different technologies became available to improve the productivity in each field of work, people began investing in others' skills. Thus was invented an early predecessor of the corporation. A wealthy investor would invest in farming equipment and land and have skilled farmers do the farming so as to produce more than a farmer would be able to afford at a smaller scale on his smaller piece of land. At this point, the investor still had an interest in ensuring the best quality of output from his land and workers, as that would earn him more money, and things were still reasonable.

Competition emerged as societies grew and multiple people provided the same service, and it became crucial to differentiate one's produce from the other's. This could be done by providing better quality than others or by providing the same good for a lesser price. There was only so much that one could do in increasing the quality, especially in mature industries. Only a small percentage of attempts at innovation succeeded, and cost of researching new innovations was exorbitant. Also, price cuts also had a limit before effecting huge losses.

Then, a brainwave came to the rescue, probably encouraged by newer and wider reaching faster means of communication (printing, radio, telegraph, tv, and more recently the internet). People were excited by the power of the new media, and were easily influenced by what they heard, read and saw. Advertising and other forms of marketing were born. Every available medium of the time was used to bombard the user with marketing messages. At some point, investors and executives at the companies realized that this was way more effective than either innovation or cost cutting. Investments shifted dramatically towards marketing and less and less was spent on innovation. The users were kept mesmerized by well concealed rhetoric and flashy glamorous advertisement. Brands took over the product. It became hard for the consumer to know what value really lay in a product, and they were systematically hypnotized into choosing brands instead of what they needed. Money was spent based on what they knew about the brand, and what they had heard about the product, and (granted, in an oversimplified view,) the ones with the most advertising budget won the customer. So this was the beginning of the downfall of value, but it had only just begun. The handful of customers who were able to lift their head above the din of the blasting marketing messages could see that things werent quite as good as they used to be. There were many more choices, many more new things, but none of them had the rigorous dedication to quality and providing value that had existed in the past. From the company's angle, now all that mattered was how frequently they could bombard the world with messages of innovation and messages of value, and deliver something that the world would relate to the messages. So, there was a rush to produce things in shorter and shorter times. While some pride our current times and the rapidity of churning out goods compared to the past, few seem to notice the enormous compromise in quality that it brings along.

Now there were hundreds of companies creating similar things, and everyone got wise to the marketing and rapid delivery formula. They needed other ways to get ahead of their competition and make money. Another ingenious idea hit the world, protection of assets - in the form of patents, copyrights, trademarks. The ingenious inventor of this idea probably thought: if I can get the law to support me, and prevent competitors from building anything I build, then I can reap the benefits of my idea without my competitors eating a free lunch off of it. Probably a reasonable thought, even when stated as above. However, it didnt quite stop there. This whole notion of protection of intellectual assets went overboard - people began to patent everything from words and phrases to wild herbs to the blue sky (not sure of the last one... yet) and that wiped out the ability of anyone to do pretty much anything new without violating some patent or copyright. Innovation and creation of value was almost dead.

Now, quality dropped so low that people were taking notice. They whined to the corporations, and the corporations who were now wizards in the craft of converting anything into money, found a way to make money off of that as well. The amazing solution was a support contract. Pay me oodles of money in addition to what you pay for what you buy, and I will fix your good even after you bought it. And then, for added good measure, the companies spent a lot of money marketing the support contracts as well. People were too dazed at this point to realize that the same company that did not want to spend upfront in providing high quality in the product would not be particularly interested in investing in excellent after sales support. They went out with a pleasant smile and paid , oh, I don't know, 20-40% more, for the same good. And what did they get when the good went bust? They got to call a toll free (yes absolutely toll free!) number. First off they are met by an automated system that proffers several advertisements, other ways to get help, and upto nine options, none of which match the problem at hand. If they were lucky, they would have a way out of the automated system, and if they had an IQ of over 6000, they would find it, and then, after a sunny afternoon spent listening to classical music interspersed with more ads, they would finally get connected to someone in a rural extremity of a yet unnamed country somewhere out there, where only the supervisor's supervisor would speak some dialect of english that they could understand. After a long delay answering questions involving personal identification including birthmarks in private areas, and (finally!) describing their problem, they would, in many cases, be politely directed to the fine print in the contract that excludes this particular issue. If they called hardware support, they would be told to contact the software company, and vice versa. They would then likely bang the phone down in frustration, and then have to call the phone company support to fix the phone, and the experience would repeat. Now, initially this was met with a lot of indignation and hullaballoo, but eventually people begin to accept at least at some subconscious level that they are decidedly inferior to the corporation as an entity in society.

Some people did whine and were hit with another brilliant rebuttal. Companies were now, routinely owned by people, and most of the large companies were owned by the public. So, if you did manage to bring this up to a company, this is what would happen: In an unstated, but pointedly implied moral argument, the company would shrug (assume for a moment that a company can, somehow, shrug, as well as argue), and argue that their first allegiance is to the shareholders, the common people, in other words, people like you. What would you say to that? Maybe you do own some shares in the company, and so you choose to shut up. So, the shareholder comes first, the company growing and expanding comes next, marketing and advertisement campaigns come third, patent and legal patent related expenses come fourth, and somewhere down towards the end of the priority chain, comes the customer, probably just above the money spent on support costs, which is the biggest overhead. But then that doesnt seem obvious, because at every higher priority point, the customer and the value provided is mentioned as the most important priority - be it to the shareholders, or in the advertisement campaigns, or while filing for a patent.

And then, as always, everyone caught on to all that, and yet another epiphany entered the mix - after making all the money people are willing to pay for exquisite fantasies (ads), mediocre products, and horrible support, the next mantra was, money for nothing! And this happened in various forms, and arms were twisted hard to make that the only choice. If you think I am talking about someone else, I am referring to anything where you pay a monthly subscription for a sparingly used service. A wireless plan with a two year agreement, a cable tv package, a monthly minimum phone bill, a gym membership where the cost of reenrolling if you take a break is exorbitant. In all these cases, a person from a hundred years ago would probably laugh at you if you offered one of these as an option. However, today, more and more offerings are moving towards this model. Companies realize (duh) that free money is the best money, and would love to get as much of it from you as they can. They have again, invested strategically, to find ways to make this the only reasonable option, by making other alternatives exorbitantly unaffordable. For instance, everytime I used to call my cell phone company, they would talk about this great offer of so much off, free candy, something, if I agreed to a) get a new line with a two year agreement , or, once they realize I'm not that stupid, b) renew my almost ended contract for another two years. And that adds even more incentive for the product development side of the house to avoid thinking about value. If all the customers in my market segment are tied in to a hundred year agreement, to the full extent of their salary inflation adjusted to account for future pay hikes, then I can pretty much stop investing in developing new products, or, if that seems too drastic, move the development to a smaller rural district in that unnamed country down the road from my support office. Can't I?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dark forest sunshine

Sometimes, we look straight at something, but do not see it.

I look at the clouds of smoky fear spewed at me from different media and their unwitting messengers, the common people. The fog lifts up on occasion, only to engulf me suddenly, thicker than before, when I blink unbelievingly at the welcome first sight of blue sky.

I look at how better stuff used to sell itself, whereas now, it is entirely about selling, the stuff itself is a minor detail, and better or not is no longer a concern.

I look at the mad rush of corporations, and sadly, the people who run them, to make money for the shareholders by any means whatsoever.

I look at the gargantuan investment of time, money and ingenuity in protecting ideas compared to the investment in imagining and building newer and better things.

I look at technology company growth plans riding on providing enhancements to existing products, further squeezing the enslaved customer, trapped either by long term commitments, exorbitant cost of switching, subscription plans guised as flexible options and other forms of bondage.

I look at how the corporation shedding thousands of individuals is applauded as cost cutting by shareholders, while an individual leaving a company for a better opportunity is mostly treated as shameful and disloyal.

I look at the flood of information being mostly noise that the internet has facilitated, as opposed to the selective few, far more reliable and credible information sources of the pre-internet days, ascertained by the high barrier to wide communication.

I look at the easy willingness to acknowledge the existence of a supreme creator by the same people that scoff at almost all other original explanations of natural phenomena as mythology, pointing indignantly to science as evidence only for the latter argument.

I also look at the eagerness to accept and propel the stringent requirements of faith, admiration, respect, fear and self-sacrifice to the supreme being, where several lives are laid on minor differences on the supreme identity and the interpretation of these requirements. I look at how such matters of faith can turn normal good fun loving people into suicidal maniacs willing to lay their lives down for a cause that is by now too complex to appease by milder means.

I look at how personal egos and corporate agendas are fulfilled by flimsily justified wars, numerous lives being sacrificed in the name of great nations.

I look at how much more choice we have today in everything, though most of the time, we rarely have a choice that gives us exactly what we want.

I look at layers upon layers of complex technology emerging from the technosphere, while all the simplest of things are still so hard to do with the most sophisticated of technologies, despite paying oodles of money to procure the technology.

I look at how training, help and documentation have become so much more automated, and yet it is so much harder to get our most common problems solved today than it used to be.

I look at how the noble choice of moving product support overseas to lower costs has somehow led to a lowering in quality of the support received by customers.

I look at how in the land, whose chief attraction is the freedom of the individual, almost every choice is hotly debated, be it sexual orientation, choice to decide whether one is ready for the huge responsibility of bringing up a child, choice to switch mobile phones at will.

I look at how much more offensive it is considered to describe, even for the sake of argument, a class based on race or religion in public than it is to use expletives. I also sadly note how lands that promote such sensitive consideration for others’ racial sentiments have led to mass prejudice and skepticism against specific sects as a direct consequence of their actions.

I look at how it is so hard to publicly express honest viewpoints praising competitors, even when the praises are genuine.

I look at how it is so hard to distinguish factual information from analysis, interpretation and even pure misinformation.

I look at all these kinds of trees, and I begin to see the outlines of a dark and dense forest. This blog is a humble attempt to bring in some sunshine, one tiny ray at a time, till the entire forest is bright and merry.