05 June 2007

Of men desperately mishandling mice

The press is again abuzz with news and expectations surrounding the release of Apple’s new iPhone. Reading a user experience discussion board I came across an astute observation that the iPhone was in such stark contrast to everything else about the cell phone industry. Apple’s iPhone is all about the user’s experience – anticipating the needs and multi-tasking wants of the consumer. Meanwhile – the cell phone industry barely notices such issues and is awash in complaints regarding reception, customer service, billing practices and other customer touchpoints.

I am reminded of Lennie Small the Steinbeck character in “Of Mice and Men”. If you recall Lennie tries so hard to keep his mouse… that his very effort was the mouse’s demise. The cell phone carriers in the US, much like long distance before it, work so hard to control, that there is barely enough attention or energy left to focus on the real value generator – the real potential barrier to switching – treating customers well. Back in the day - I often wondered if that very control hastened the rate of commoditization and along the way created so much of the ill will and low brand loyalty in that industry.

In business school we are all taught to optimize profit. And considerable amount of time is spent learning methods to accomplish just that. The phrase, “like printing money” is often used to describe a business that is immensely profitable. The digital world, with duplication and distribution costs at nearly zero – is the ultimate platform for optimizing monetization – even better than “printing” money. Of course the downside is that duplication has now been democratized. Nearly everybody can and will read-write-repeat. DRM has failed to eliminate shrinkage to this point and global cultural values regarding intellectual ownership will only increase “the problem.”

Clearly in the thirty or so years that we have been converting our products to the digital format we have learned to monetize some of them, but we have not learned to elegantly optimize them for sustainability. Maybe we should stop worrying about starving and herding customers, and figure out how to make more appetizing meals matched to their needs and wants. Maybe I will get in line at the Apple store early.