A demographic of one

Christian Cantrell, in the excellent The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be, explains why I don’t yet have my jetpack by laying out a triangle with corners at interoperability, profitability, and possibility. Quoting,

[T]echnology isn’t so much about what’s possible as it is about what’s profitable. The primary reason we haven’t landed a human on Mars yet has less to do with the technical challenges of the undertaking, and far more to do with the costs associated with solving them. And the only reason the entire sum of human knowledge and scientific, artistic, and cultural endeavor isn’t instantly available at every single person’s fingertips anywhere on the planet isn’t because we can’t figure out how to do it — it’s because we haven’t yet figured out the business models to support it.

This is entirely right. We don’t have supersonic flight from everywhere to everywhere. A century ago the idea of being able to fly faster than the speed of sound was close to laughable; those that did speculate about it envisioned me being able to fly at Mach 2 from my house to the shops. It hasn’t happened, but not because of physics; it hasn’t happened because no-one can work out how to do it without it being a money sink. Put another way, if space aliens wanted to summarise the history of humanity in one sentence, a reasonable contender for that sentence would be this: you get what you pay for. And no-one wants to pay for supersonic flight from London to New York, let alone from here to the supermarket.

This is one of those things where you can’t really blame anyone; it’s just the way the universe works out, irritatingly.

But. (You, gentle reader, could see that that was coming.) Not everything is supersonic flight. Cantrell again:

Consider something relatively straightforward like a multi-touch interface on your closet door that allows you to easily browse and experiment with your wardrobe, offering suggestions based on prior behavior, your upcoming schedule, and the weather in the locations where you are expected throughout the day… There’s very little about [this] that isn’t entirely possible right now using technology that either already exists, or that could be developed relatively easily. So if the future is possible today, why is it still the future?

…and then goes on to explain that, like supersonic flight, this stuff doesn’t happen because it’s hard to imagine making it profitable. And this is true. If some sort of serious company were to dedicate themselves to making the iDoor, to put together a big marketing budget, to convince people that they need it, to take the time to demonstrate why your life would be better with this thing, to put it in shops where you can buy it, to build the cloud services that it depends on… then, yes, they’d probably sell a million of ‘em and make a huge profit and create a whole new market for smart domestic appliances. Of course, perhaps that company would sink millions into doing it and then vanish without trace, like Fun Boy Three or something. And in order to sink millions into a project to begin with, you have to have millions. Which is not particularly a given.

However… half the people reading this are techies. And those techies are thinking: hey, sure, I could have one of those if I wanted. Buy a forty quid crappy Android tablet, throw together a web app and put it on a server, point the tablet at the web app, and superglue it to my wardrobe door, and Bob’s your mother’s brother, ta daaah.

So it is doable. And profitably, too, assuming that you can throw together the app in a weekend and that having the iDoor at all is worth more to you than forty quid and a weekend of spare time. So there’s something a little bit wrong with Cantrell’s thesis, surely?

Well. Not necessarily. Clearly the major issue there is that it assumes that you’re capable of writing a bunch of software. Typical hacker thing to think. Most people can’t do that, don’t want to do that, aren’t interested in doing that. And this is true, for the same reason that I’m not interested in learning how my car works; if it goes wrong, I’ll take it to a garage and pay money to fix it. I exchange money for time, which is what money is for. Great, except that, as we discovered above, there is no market out there in iDoors for me to throw money at. It has been said that the second iPod cost £350 to build but the first cost four hundred million dollars. The iPod is a mass-market product. And what we’re describing here is a different sort of a thing. If you think about it, there are two types of products:

Mass market products

You make money through economies of scale. The first one costs \$400 million, the others cost £350, you sell them for £500, and eventually pay off your initial investment, and everything after that is profit. Hooray! This is, in essence, how every business plan ever works. It’s successful if the thing you make really is what everyone wants; that most people’s desires are roughly the same, or at least are caterable-for by the customisability built into the device.

Hand-crafted individual products

A thing made for one person only, deliberately constructed to their desires, and with no interest in making it useful to others. Requires skill to make; is likely not expensive.

Hand-crafted isn’t really the word here. This is not about lovingly whittled bird-houses or carefully sewn samplers. When you make a product for yourself, you don’t put the fit and finish on it, most of the time. If you need to reach something high up, you don’t carefully design and construct a stepladder; you put a stool on top of a chair and then stand on the tower of furniture. That’s what “hand-crafting” is, most of the time: a jury-rigged thing. You’ve built a product, there; one with a temporary lifetime, but it does what you need it to do, and you were able to construct it for yourself, without help, without purchase.

And that’s why home-built software is, most of the time, not a good advert for itself: most of the people capable of throwing together the iDoor would make it unpretty, because that’s quicker to do. More importantly, if you make your homemade iDoor look and feel wonderful to other people, then you’re not building a hand-crafted one-person tool any more, are you? You’re trying to build a mass-market tool, because you’re trying to impress people who are not you. There is almost no space in the zeitgeist to help people build a thing for themselves and have that be good, because everything’s keyed around recognition, around knowing that a thing was a good idea because other people say “I want an iDoor!” and then suddenly you’re the CEO of iDoor.com even though it was just a fun weekend project.

And this is made a lot more difficult by the culture of mockery around empowering people to do this for themselves. It’s hard to get off the ground with a project designed to help people help themselves, exactly because it’s too easy for others to sneer and say “I want my problems solved for me, and so does everyone else; why would anyone want to learn?”. And on the other side of the fence you’ve got Make magazine, radio hams, open source people, kit car builders, most of whom are more interested in having raging internal wars inside their own communities about when to use a three-eights Gripley, or are more interested in just staying inside that community and not trying to convince everyone else because of the barrage of mockery.

And what this means is that making an iDoor is a lot harder than it should be, because there is little to nothing to help me do it. Apps that help me build apps are all keyed around the idea that I’ll make an application and then sell it, not that I’ll make an application and no-one other than me will ever see it. Everything that talks about making software is oriented around making it so that other people like it: whether you should do that so they’ll buy it, or for ideological purity because it’s good to give away, there is little around helping people make a thing which is useful to them and them alone.

Cantrell is currently entirely correct: what blocks things from becoming products is financial viability, not scientific possibility. And what stops the future being now is that we can’t buy the products. So how do we change the mindset so that I can help myself rather than wait for someone else to solve it for me and my million friends? How do I build a product with a demographic of one?