Saturday, November 29, 2008

Death of the Premium

What a great article on Gizmodo! After numerous failed attempts to buy a decent laptop recently, I’ve been ranting about the depressing effects of Sturgeon’s law on computer industry. My wife tells me I’m getting old. Perhaps... But there is one thing I am sure about: this isn’t just about computers.

It has been universally accepted that 90% of everything available to buy, watch, eat or listen to is crap, but the mere existence of those “normal” 10% made me feel OK about it. Want something that works? Want to see a movie that wasn’t made for a dumbass? Want to eat an actual grown vegetable instead of a toxic manufactured biomass sprayed with “taste” yet approved by FDA because it hasn’t been proven to kill instantly on contact? Well, you could always pay extra and get the “other 10%” - the stuff that works, movies that make sense, food that’s been grown as opposed to manufactured, software that doesn’t crash, an alive customer service rep. instead of a robot-over-email, etc. Yes, premium goods and services usually cost a lot more, but hey! - this food will give your dog a chance to actually live as long as the wikipedia article says he’s supposed to.

The problem is that we’re seeing a slow death of the premium. Many companies are deciding that the other 10% just aren’t worth the trouble. Market doesn’t want it as much. The consumer prefers free and slow crashing software over paying $59.99 for something that works. Pre-broken computers are popular because they would have been $50 more expensive if sold in a proper working condition without damaging crapware on them. Weird crunchy red objects at my local grocery store are called “strawberries” and there is a growing generation of kids that actually believe that strawberries are supposed to be that. You cannot buy a laptop with a usable LCD: today your only available option will be TN-based, 6-bit, low-contrast, glossy wide-screens with pathetic color reproduction often spiced up by horrendous light bleed. Yeah, those 12-megapixel noisy photos from your latest Canon camera will look fantastic! Never mind that 4 year old cameras available for $20 on eBay actually take better looking photos. And even Apple won’t build you 16.7 million colors laptop despite their pricing: dithered 262,000 is “good enough”. And who’s complaining? $499 for a freakin computer can do no wrong, you can buy one for every Christmas (and why shouldn’t you? Next year they’ll drop another megapixel into an integrated webcam and a keyboard will be glossy too!)

Our bottom-line oriented, cost-driven consumer culture is dragging us into the world of affordable mediocrity, where everything is commoditized, standardized, made in China and very affordable. There are grown ups now who call shopping their hobby. I guess nobody wants stuff that works simply because most of what people buy never gets any real world use, the mere fact of buying the goddamn thing, not using it, is the point.

There are two practical and unfortunate effects from all this. First, we can’t dodge the crap anymore by buying less and paying more. That stinks but well... You can always picture poor kids in Africa or go 200 years back in time to realize how silly you look bitching about those LCDs... But there is another, more troubling aspect of it though: the death of premium means that innovation, engineering and science don’t matter as much as marketing, advertising and packaging. As much as I hate the military, they remain the only customer capable of demanding more. And paying for it. And since Cold War is long time over, I guess we’ll continue living off the tech we had built to fight it. Until the aliens, of course, threaten to conquer us all.

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