The Economist on Makers/Tinkerers

A very relevant article in The Economist about the DIY/hack trend of the amateur revolution: "Technological tinkering, or hacking, is not limited to computers. Cars, cameras and vacuum-cleaners can be hacked too". Some excerpts I found interesting:

Today's technological tinkerers, however, have a far wider range of household gizmos to play with and modify, from cars to cameras. Getting them to do new things, and not merely what the manufacturer had in mind, is an increasingly popular pastime. (...) But in some cases, such hacks can undermine the manufacturer's business model. Consider games consoles, for example, which operate on a “razor and blades” principle. Consoles are often sold at a loss, but console-makers receive a licence fee of a few dollars for each game sold—so provided each customer buys enough games, the console-maker eventually makes money. When Microsoft launched its Xbox console in 2001, hackers raced to install Linux on it, which transformed it into a low-cost, high performance media-playback system. While this was a minority sport, anyone who did this without buying any games was, in effect, receiving a subsidy from Microsoft. Little wonder, then, that the new Xbox 360 console features significantly beefed-up security measures.

A second example is the low-cost “disposable” digital cameras sold by CVS, an American pharmacy chain. These cameras are designed to be used once and then returned to the shop, where, for a processing fee, the stored pictures or movies are returned to you on CD or DVD. The cameras are then reset and resold. Inevitably, however, hackers have figured out how to access and reuse the cameras themselves. (One even ended up being installed in the nose of a small rocket.) If enough people do this, the business model breaks down. Clever hacking by a few, in other words, could lead to higher prices for the many.

But some companies, at least, have chosen to embrace hackers. iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robot vacuum-cleaner, includes an external data connector in the device and has even documented how to use it. While most customers appreciate their Roombas for their autonomous cleaning skills, there is also a small minority of users who want to reprogram them. iRobot is one of the few firms to acknowledge and appreciate customers who like to tinker. After all, there are few manifestations of feedback as heartfelt as someone who is willing to spend their own time and effort to improve a product.

Why do I blog this? working on a short client project about the effects of dematerialization, this DIY/amateur trend is a very important change pattern lately. Some companies are not well-aware that it might modify their business model.