Giving people what they want, all gain and no pain

by Tasman Richardson

Ask most people what they think of Apple and you’ll get a massive cult-like love response. You’ll hear about thinking different and how visionary they are. But let’s take a break from the purple cool aid for a moment and think about what that vision means. I’ll translate to save time, visionary is another way of saying “I’ll tell you what’s best” and “p.s. if you don’t like it, you can suck it”. For all of its innovation, Apple has for the most part, been a dictator. Whoa there! Please don’t mis-quote me. I’m not saying Steve Job’s and Mussolini were pals, I’m talking about companies that let us be who we want versus companies that tell us who they want us to be. It’s this dictation versus accommodation that I want to look into.

If we take this beyond pure efficiency of a product, we can focus on behavior, specifically bad behavior. But bad behaviour is so subjective, isn’t it? Your reasonably moderate behaviour could be my worst case, must-put-an-end-to cause. Smoking is a lethal habit that kills people every day. Even without advertising, tobacco is stable as ever but that could easily change with the number of billion dollar law suits targeting them. British  American Tobacco or BAT need to search for a solution that redefines “smoking”. There’s no argument against the American Health Foundation’s statement “The best cigarette is no cigarette” but redefining the cigarette is a good start, smokeless smokes anyone? So far, the closest they’ve come is the Eclipse, a far from perfect solution which does manage to reduce the harmful effects of second hand smoke since it doesn’t really burn tobacco. Instead, a charcoal tip is lit, which heats up glycerin. This creates a vapor which passes over the tobacco. It’s a bit like brewing coffee, but instead of beans you have tobacco and instead of water you have glycerin vapour. It’s hard to believe but the search for a “healthy” cigarette can be traced back to 1958. Incidentally, I can remember being in Narita airport and they had this little plot of ground where people were asked to stand if they were going to smoke. There they were, puffing away, out in the open but no smoke, no stink. And then I saw it, the slim finely perforated railing that ran around the spot, which was silently and efficiently sucking away all the second hand smoke. It was brilliant, a smoking room without walls. It focused on removing the true undesirable which was the smoke, instead of building a plexiglass leper colony.

Another area that begs for a solution is the problem of traffic congestion with its massive carbon emissions. A while back, there was a big push for everyone to car pool and hopefully, reduce the number of cars on the road. It’s a nice idea except for one thing, people don’t like sharing their cars. According to Statistics Canada, 82 per cent of  commuters prefer cars to any other form of transit (including walking). So instead of dictating with negatives like toll fees and guilt trips, a few car companies have developed prototypes to appease the individual while still contributing to the greater good. Take Volkswagen’s concept car for example. The L1 is a single seat commuter car. It satisfies all the self-directed, self-interested and selfish needs of a driver but at the same time, it’s entirely electric and very compact. This means less space, smoother traffic flow, and an incredibly small carbon footprint. Now you have your space, your timing, and you don’t have to apologize for your musical tastes (unless it’s Bon Jovi, a pox on you!).

Speaking of musical trends that refuse to die, remember mix tapes? It’s still great to get a good mix tape, or mix cd, or mp3 playlist. But that’s the problem now, with digital rights management, making a mix using music you purchased is an exercise in frustration. It’s a poor motivation for honesty when paying for music yields less control than downloading bootlegs. How can a poor, defenseless, consumer, support their favorite bands without  having their music files in lock down? Enter Apple competitor Amazon. They’ve been expanding their business model for a long time now. Well beyond the scope of books, Amazon has entered into music sales, but how are they able to compete with Apple’s ginormous iTunes’s Store? With two clever steps: they sell music which is completely free of digital locks, and they teamed up alternative music file manager DoubleTwist which is incredibly similar to iTunes but runs on Android and allows users to download from Amazon just like iTunes works with the iTunes store. Incidentally, in case you didn’t catch that, Google + Amazon co-existing in harmony to wage war against Apple! Who needs Game of Thrones with action drama like this!

In any case, it remains to be seen whether accommodating consumer desires is preferable to dictating consumer behaviours, but it’s not really an “either or” challenge. The best of both worlds needs to spring from balance, which is not surprising at all and of course, more easily said than done. Fast food giant McDonald’s tried to strike this balance with the most unhealthy of snacks, the french-fry, by converting the cooking oil to a trans-fat free formula but taking care to retain their signature flavour. It’s a huge step, but it’s not quite enough since it only solves the problem by addressing the buzz word (trans-fat) but fails to tackle the acrylamide (chemistry nerd) which is a recognized cancer causing agent. Research shows that this nasty chemical can be reduced by up to 95% if the French fries are dipped in calcium chloride but so far, I couldn’t find examples of any fast food chain giving that a try. If you’re thinking it could affect the taste, the study (Gökmen and Şenyuva, 2007) claimed that this treatment didn’t affect product quality, so there’s some food for thought (shameless pun).

Having your cake and eating it too seems to be the holy-grail, and if companies can afford to do the research, why not apply that R&D to satisfying our selfish wants while keeping the penalties at bay?

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