Sunday, June 10, 2012

Temporary tech to take me to tomorrow

I have said it before and I will say it again: I love living in the future.  I recounted a story for my daughter the other day, telling her about my college days when my old roommate would spin science fiction stories of what our lives would some day be like.  He would tell of days to come when we could get music and video on demand in our homes, through the then-emerging internet.  People would travel with computers, he'd say.  Distribution would be disrupted.

And here we are.

The future has not come to all players and parties at the same time in the same way, however.  The automobile industry is my most recent example of an economic sector clawing at the last strands of the 20th century.  The fat profits from fat cars are too hard to give up, and being the first mover into the 21st century hasn't quite worked yet for the Volt or the Leaf.  There is no bellwether to show new ideas will provide new big profits, and so the capital-heavy industries lumber behind with the oil companies and cable television.

The future is coming, of course.  Time may stretch out patiently while I tap my metaphorical foot demanding the Great Leap Forward.  The change I want may be later, and so I need to bridge the gap to the future that will someday arrive.  My wife and I had a choice when the time came this year to replace our old minivan with a new vehicle.  We could plan to finance and keep a car for seven or eight years, as we did with the last one, or we could just look on this as a short-term solution to a long-term problem - because a longer term solution is not that far away.

I did the research and the test drives, and settled on the Prius, not because it is the most beautiful car in the world, but because it reaches some short-term goals with a substantial resale value so the depreciation hit won't kill us when we sell the car in about three years.  I normally like to use my tech to death (and slightly beyond death), so this is out of character for me.  Technology solutions must sometimes be hard realizations that the thing we really need is coming soon, so let's just MacGyver something for now that keeps costs down, does the job, and where we won't feel the short-term investment is really just a loss.

Ford and some others are getting ready to give us what we expected from the future.  I just need to use the old tech a little while longer, keep my expectation of investments in line, and keep tapping my foot.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mixed messages in marketing mayhem

I remember the book The Lorax from my own childhood, when I had taped environmental posters to my bedroom wall and took out a youth membership in the World Wildlife Fund with my allowance.

Yes, I was that kind of rockin' eleven-year-old.

The book paints a pretty dark picture of what happens when our rampant consumerism  - our thneeds, if you will - gets the better of us.  None of us is without blame, and all of us can do better to restrain our desire for stuff, and let the earth get a breath now and then.  The best part of the message from the book was that no matter how bad things got, if one person cared enough, it could get a little bit better over time.  And maybe, just maybe, the Lorax would come back.

There are some areas where we have made some progress.  Water quality in many areas is better, and air pollution in some cities has improved.  So we have a ways to go, but we seek change over time and not an instant turn around.  Stewart Brand's groundbreaking book, Clock Of The Long Now, preaches patience in our world view, and I believe him when he says the planet will recover just fine given enough time, whether we humans are here to see it or not.  I also believe that if we want humans on the planet to witness the recovery, we perhaps should make some changes.

The Lorax was created to speak for the trees.  Trees don't have particularly aggressive public relations strategies, and are notoriously bad at updating their Twitter feeds.  Usurping that vision to speak for seventy product tie-ins is the worst example of ignoring a brand and an audience I can think of since Susan G. Komen paired up with KFC.  So what is my response as a consumer when I see a product brand I have purchased in the past now splattered with a "Endorsed by the Lorax" banner?

I switch brands.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Grading and Gating Gadget Guilt

I've had a long moral struggle about where and how my gadgets are manufactured.  A couple of recent stories from This American Life and the New York Times has shifted the focus to Apple, largely because it coincides with Apple earnings announcement that they've made over $13 billion in profit, in one quarter, and after taxes.  This is on gross sales of about $46.3 billion.  Which is to say, after taxes and every other expense, Apple's profit margin is about 28%.

If that margin worked equally on all products, the after-tax profit on the cheapest iPad available would be about $140.

Molly Wood issued a call for Apple to take the lead in improving working conditions at Foxconn, Apple's primary manufacturer in China.  It appears, after all, that they can afford it to spend a little.  They charge more for their products than competitors, and clearly this hasn't hurt them in the market.  Apple can hardly say competitive forces are to blame for their decisions to force overtime and other difficult working conditions in China.  They are currently the most valued, publicly-traded company in the United States, worth more than even the oil giants.

Let's unpack that last thought.

Oil, which is really to say gasoline for most Americans, is something we buy at least once a month, very often once a week, and often for more than one car.  One 2011 study put the average family investment in gasoline at $368 per month, or roughly $4,400 per year.  How many people do you know that spend this much per family each year on phones and tablets?  Nevertheless, Apple is far more profitable - and hence more valuable - than the leading oil producer.

So there is no economic argument for Apple not do better by its contracted labor.  Heck, with profit that high, they could perhaps even afford to pay Americans and still eke out a little for stockholders.  But they don't.  And people still buy their products.

I don't personally own any Apple products (though there are some in my household).  This wasn't a principled stand against using Chinese labor, as the Asus computer I am using to write this was manufactured  in China.   I own a Samsung phone from Korea, and a Kindle Fire tablet that was "assembled" in China (presumably from some imported parts).  One of the reasons I own each of these devices is because they are considerably cheaper than owning Apple counterparts, and I am price conscious just like most consumers.

The primary reason I don't own Apple products is I don't like being locked in to their controlled world.  I want to be able to do ugly hacks and break things on the machines I own, and Apple doesn't make that easy so I just avoid their stuff.  I have both Linux and Windows boots on my laptop, and both my phone and my tablet are rooted Android devices that I regularly mess up because I find that fun.

So, Apple is the most highly-valued company on the exchange because they produce a controlled, pretty experience that many people will pay a premium to use.

I admit a great deal of mixed emotions in this debate.  I'd perhaps consider buying American-made gadgets (I've always bought American-made, union-made cars, for example) but that means there needs to be some in the market that are at least competitive.  There aren't, so I own cheap electronics from places which likely have poor working conditions.  In the cases of my tablet and laptop, at well under half what I would have had to pay for Apple products.

Does this make me less culpable?  Maybe not.  Does it make Apple more culpable when they have huge profit margins and still support conditions that would be illegal in their home country?

Yes.  I think it does.