Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: Corporate Marketing
The generic consumer holds to a universal blind belief that the competitive free market naturally brings the best products to the fore. But this belief is false. For it is the best-marketed, not the best-made, products that win in the free market. And this always benefits the producer, never the consumer.
Two Kinds of Competition
Free market competition, so many shallow thinkers will argue, is the driving force of economic progress. Competition, they say, ensures that it is the best products and the best providers of service which survive and prosper within the market. It does not. It is competition, they say, which creates variety and choice within the market, thus giving the consumer what he wants, what he needs, and what is best for him. It does not.
I am by nature fiercely competitive. But not in the commercial sense which is motivated by greed, profit and lust for dominance. My competitiveness is of the intellectual kind. It is motivated by curiosity and the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of my labour making the lives of others more fulfilling and productive. It is this kind of competition against the unknown coupled with co-operation with others which results in the best products and services. My intention is always to produce things which last and which do not go wrong. In other words: future-safe design realised with zero-defect technology. But as I have learned to my cost: in a capitalist free market this is not the way to succeed.
Some clients have told me that I would make more money if my software were not quite so good. It was robust enough not to require my annual service support scheme. Therefore people generally did not renew their support after the first year. If my software had caused problems, then I would be called out to correct the causes and be able to charge for doing so. This could be one reason why I am not rich.
The Consumer Product
It is never in a manufacturer's best interest to market a future-safe zero-defect product. A product which never goes wrong does not generate any service and repair business. Once the market has become saturated with a product which lasts forever there is no longer a demand for it. Its maker may as well dismiss his workforce and shut up shop. To fulfil his commercial objective of maximising profit, a manufacturer needs a product which meets the minimum legal requirements of 'fitness for purpose' and just outlasts its statutory warranty. In other words it must tend as far as possible towards adopting the nature of a consumable commodity like food. The manufacturer may then survive and prosper by servicing, repairing and replacing original items as they wear out.
But consumers have grown wise to products which are deliberately made to fail after a limited time. Furthermore, foreign manufactures who subscribe to a philosophy which reveres artisanic virtue quickly take over the market with long-lasting versions of local products.
They have no established sales and service network. Their easiest solution is therefore to invade the indigenous market with zero-defect technology which does not need a sales and service network. Consumers soon get used to buying from a remote unseen source once they are confident that its products will not fail. The manufacturer is also confident to offer attractive on-site delivery and replacement guarantees when he is using a zero-defect approach. Zero-defect means near-zero field support costs.
The only way left to stay in business in the long term is through rapid innovation. The manufacturer must continually improve and extend the design of his product. Then the consumer will be tempted by the improvements and opt to buy a new one despite the fact that the one he already has is still performing perfectly. But this is a tall order. It is not practically possible. Technology cannot move that fast. Ideas and inventions come by inspiration: not to order. What the manufacturer has to do is deceive the consumer into thinking that what is now being offered is far better than what he already has.
The process of continuous change to which the manufacturer must subject his product cannot therefore be a process of technical improvement. It can only be one of fashion disguised as technical improvement. This deception becomes increasingly easier for the manufacturer to perpetrate upon the consumer. This is because products are becoming more and more high-tech. It leaves the consumer less and less knowledgeable of what he is buying, and consequently less able to judge what is and what is not a genuine technical improvement. Technical improvement does take place. However, it is a much slower process than the changes we see continuously taking place in product fashion.
Best-Made vs Best-Marketed
Technical improvement is driven by genuine innovation. A change in product fashion is driven by mass-media marketing. The generic consumer is technically ignorant. He is therefore unable to discern the difference between them. Consequently he will accept neither unless it is proactively marketed. So the products which capture and dominate the market are not those which are best-made, but those which are best-marketed. Likewise the service provider who dominates the market is not he who provides the best service, but he who provides the best-marketed service. It is of course logically possible for the best-marketed product also to be the best-made. However, this would be by chance rather than by consequence. Thus it is the exception rather than the rule.
This has precipitated a change in the primary purpose for which a product is designed. The primary - and indeed the only - purpose of a product was originally to perform a specific and stated function for its end-user. For example, the purpose of a car was to convey its owner and his passengers from one place to another. This is no longer so. The primary purpose of a product in today's global free market is to aid the marketing process. In other words, to sell itself. Its function as an aid to its end-user - and indeed its fitness for that purpose - is now purely secondary and incidental.
The result is that products today are designed for visual appeal rather than ease of use. They are sold as solutions to problems rather than as tools to help users to solve them. They are sold as pieces of sculpture rather than machines. They are sold as necessary adjuncts to 'the good life' rather than as performers of tasks. What is now marketed to the consumer is the sizzle, not the sausage. Once a product has been sold it has already fulfilled the primary purpose for which it was created. Its quest from then on is to wear out as quickly as possible without incurring any penalties imposed by consumer law.
There seems to be no end to the list of cases in which the technically inferior of two competing products has won the entire market thereby driving the better one out of existence. Two frequently quoted examples are the battle between the two video recording technologies VHS versus Betamax, and the one between the Windows and OS/2 personal computer operating systems.
Such products easily bewitch the consumer with their pre-sales appeal. But after each all-too-short post-sale honeymoon, the consumer soon becomes disillusioned with the flimsy structure and depleted functionality beneath the tinsel shell. He could transfer his allegiance to another supplier. But to survive in their fiercely competitive markets all the suppliers who survive have to adopt the same philosophy: the same modus operandus. The consumer is therefore in the same situation no matter to which supplier he goes.
The Means to Survive
They who succeed in the capitalist free market are they who are best at marketing. The natures and qualities of their products are relatively immaterial. The larger their market, the louder they must shout to make themselves heard above their competitors. Today, for almost everything, the market is global. In a global market, the only way to be heard is through large-scale mass-media marketing. This is very expensive. It consumes vast amounts of money. The only businesses who can afford mass-media marketing on such a scale are the large well-capitalised corporates. Capital and the free market thus form a mechanism which empowers the rich to influence the poor to buy only from the rich.
The corollary to the above is that the process of marketing a product in today's global free market is no longer scaleable. A business cannot start small and expand gradually. There is a minimum size below which a business cannot sustain itself. It is like trying to light a fire with two or three small pieces of coal. You can play a powerful gas torch onto it to get the coal alight fully. Nevertheless, as soon as you remove the torch the fire will go out very quickly - long before the coal is fully burned. The fire is too small to be self-sustaining. It is below critical mass. By analogy, the larger the market is, the larger is the minimum size which a business must be in order to be self-sustaining within that market. The
critical mass for a business in today's global market is multinational in size. Consequently the existence of the smaller business is increasingly transitory.
Where This Has Left Me
To write good software you need a good brain, a lot of experience, a computer and a quiet environment free from frequent interruption: not a great bustling smoked glass and concrete office complex with thick pile carpets, rubber plants, model-girl receptionists and all the other paraphernalia of corporate imagery. However, being unable, through technical ignorance, to discern the difference between good software and bad, image is the only thing in which the commercial consumer is able and willing to place his trust.
This means that the lone artisan - no matter how knowledgeable, how dedicated, how skilled, how experienced or how accomplished - can never win the consumer's trust without the marketing might of a world-class corporate. Since this is financially out of his reach, the market rejects him. All he can hope for are crumbs which may fall from time to time from the corporate tables. Notwithstanding, this rewards him with nothing better than the living standard of a casual labourer. In fact, for all my dedicated hard work over more than two decades, it has left me destitute.
The image-worshipping culture with which corporate marketing has indoctrinated the consumer mind has thus cut me off from my only means of transforming my labour into my needs of life.
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©May 1998 Robert John Morton