Adversarial Compatibility: hidden escape hatch rescues us from imprisonment through our stuff

My latest Guardian column, Adapting gadgets to our needs is the secret pivot on which technology turns, explains the hidden economics of stuff, and how different rules can trap you in your own past, or give you a better future.

Depending on your view, the stuff you own is either a boon to business or a tremendous loss of opportunity.

For example, the collection spice bottles in your pantry means that I could possibly sell you a spice rack. On the other hand, it also means that I can’t design a special spice rack that only admits spice bottles of my own patent-protected design, which would thereby ensure that if you wanted to buy spices in the future you’d either have to buy them from me or throw away that very nice spice rack I sold you.

In the tech world, this question is often framed in terms of “ecosystems” (as in the “Google/Chrome/Android ecosystem”) or platforms (as in the “Facebook platform”) but whatever you call it, the discussion turns on a crucial different concept: sunk cost.

That’s the money, time, mental energy and social friction you’ve already sunk into the stuff you own. Your spice rack’s sunk cost includes the money you spend on the rack, the time you spent buying fixings for it and the time you spent afixing it, the emotional toil of getting your family to agree on a spice rack, and the incredible feeling of dread that arises when you contemplate going through the whole operation again.

If you’ve already got a lot of sunk costs, the canny product strategy is to convince you that you can buy something that will help you organise your spices, rip all your CDs and put them on a mobile device, or keep your clothes organised.

But what a vendor really wants is to get you to sink cost into his platform, ecosystem, or what have you. To convince you to buy his wares, in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll go on doing so – because they match the decor, because you already have the adapters, and so on.

Adapting gadgets to our needs is the secret pivot on which technology turns [The Guardian]

(Images: Icon, Apple Mini DisplayPort adapter FAIL, David Joyce, CC-BY-SA: Story, Lumix G1 Adapter Breakdown, Chad Kainz, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. kbert says:

    Cory, it's really annoying when you do this:
    "No engineering firm would ever be allowed to use secretive, proprietary
    systems to calculate the load-stresses on your home and prohibit you
    from knocking out a wall without using their special RSJs."

    So, what's an RSJ?!
    Yes I Google; how far am I supposed to go to learn your code?

  2. It's for a British audience; the term is a common one in the UK.

  3. It's still annoying. Otherwise this was really thought-provoking.

    Once upon a time, I spent some time selling credit card processing services. Almost all of the people I talked to were contracted for 3-5 years, with a hefty penalty if they broke their contract. It never occurred to me this "switching cost" was the exact difference between a good service and a crappy one. What a smart marketing move, to be able to say, "there's no cost to cancel, because we're sure you won't want to."

    I think RSJ is Really Special Joints. Or maybe joists. What is a joist, anyway?

  4. When you knock through a load-bearing wall to make one big room out of two smaller ones, you need a "joist" -- a structural steel support -- to take up the load. Lots of British housing stock is Victorian and the rooms are very small, it's a common practice to knock out all or most of the walls on the ground floor to make a large eating/living/cooking area out of three or more separate, tiny, dark rooms.

  5. ???

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