Thursday, May 05, 2005


can services replace products?

A growing chorus of people are questioning how much "stuff" individuals need to own. Certainly environmentalists are a strong force on this discussion, but it is broader than that. The whole "simplicity" movement is partly a reaction to "excessive" materialism. Just like the admonition that a pet isn't just for Christmas, it requires attention year round, our inanimate objects also demand attention from us, even if we don't use them much. They need maintenance, cleaning, storage...

One response has been to promote the use of borrowing instead of owning. More generally, it is about making a service out of something that is presently sold as product. The idea echoes the old sales wisdom that people don't want to buy a drill, what they really want is a hole. Thackara notes that most drills are only used ten minutes -- the rest of the time they sit idle. (He doesn't mention that most consumer drills are only designed to handle a few continuous minutes of drilling, else the motor will burn out, but his point is still valid.) Why not just rent a drill, instead of buy one?

The idea is very appealing on a social level, and many people involved in the emerging field of service design are thinking of creative ways to make service an attractive option. IT might make the process easier to manage, by matching availability with need.

To reverse the pattern from product consumption to service consumption would be colossal. Even though services represent the majority of GDP, it has achieved that because the relative costs of products fallen so dramatically, a fact that makes product consumption that much more tempting. The historical momentum for more products is strong. As humans have learned to embed knowledge and functionality in objects, they have created an expanding array of products people have wanted. Books became a product substitute for storytellers. Vending machines replace merchants. ATMs replace bank tellers. Bread machines replace bakers. Where once people needed to use the services of a photocopy shop, now they can own their own personal photocopier. Sometimes product replaces service for cost reasons (ATMs), but other times (person photocopiers) it is perceived convenience, even when unit costs are higher.

Cost and convenience: they are the demons that must be addressed for services to replace products. User behavior, at this point in history, seems beholden to those factors.

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