Halfway to the Wall

Last week I gave my middle-school-aged son my old iPhone 5s (his first cell phone) and got a new iPhone 6s. The new phone is sleeker, sexier, more fun to hold and interact with, and the battery lasts all day long.

Fundamentally, though, it’s no better than my iPhone 5s.  There’s nothing important that I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and all of the improvements are at best pleasing refinements on something that already worked really well.

Reflecting on that, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve ever made a $750 purchase so blithely (paying $34/month takes the sting out), nor can I think of a time that I’ve spent this much on a product that I enjoyed so much and that delivers so little additional value.

Thinking about this, I began to reflect on how quickly the iPhone has run out of runway. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This means that it’s taken eight years to go from revolution to marginal improvement in the most revolutionary product to hit the world since the TV. Eight years.

The iPhone is one of a zillion products that’s running out of space to get any better. Our razor blades can have only so many blades, our TVs only so many pixels, our knives can’t get any sharper, and we can’t execute stock trades any faster.

It’s true that there are some places where we are leveraging the power of global capitalism in ways that will drive global change for everyone – and not just for the richest billion or two. The iPhone revolution will reach the poorer parts of the developing world in the next five year – another 2.5 billion will have smartphones by 2020 – and that could be transformative. Tesla’s investment in batteries has the potential to transform how power is being delivered to the three billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity.

But we’re not eight years away from solving the vaccine cold chain problem. Or from figuring out how to educate the next billion kids who live nowhere near a qualified teacher. Or from reversing global warming. By 2023, the new Global Goals notwithstanding, we won’t feel ho-hum about yet another primary care hospital chain that can deliver quality care at 1/100th of what it costs today; we won’t feel that the market is saturated with drought-resistant seeds that ensure that a billion smallholder farming families don’t go hungry; and we won’t be saying that we don’t need new ideas for making slums into dignified, safe place to live, because they’ve become so dignified and safe.

Part of the reason this won’t happen is because some of these problems are fundamentally more complex than the purely technical challenge of building a better battery or, even, revolutionizing mobile computing. But it increasingly feels to me that our real limitation comes from funneling the vast majority of the world’s time, talent and resources into solving problems that, increasingly, don’t matter all that much for improving human well-being.

What I wonder most of all is whether there is a shift coming – and, if so, when.

By 2030 will we have a collective awakening that causes us to say “wow, we really can’t create more value with the next best app, but getting another billion people safe, clean, affordable power [or whatever else is truly needed] is an opportunity worth a trillion dollars of investment?”

If not by 2030, what about 2050? 2070 anyone?

At some point, do we hit an inflection point where we say, “all of these toys are great, but we’re through putting all of our energy into getting halfway to the wall?”

And, if we’ll arrive at that inflection point someday, the next question to ask is: what will it take to make that day come sooner?

Measure more than distance and speed

A few months ago I started running again after a decade-long hiatusVibram’s five-finger shoes have made my knee pain a thing of the past.  But I’m still working my way back towards running, and it’s slow going (maybe I’m just going slow).

In my first 15 years of running (I started when I was 12), running was all about suffering.  I occasionally had easy, effortless runs, but the general rule was to push harder and go faster to “get the most” out of the run.  I’d say 80% of the time I spent running I was hoping it would end, and that was kind of the point.

Back then I would have loved all the technology that’s available now.  I have iMapMyRun on my iPhone, and it’s pretty incredible: free software that runs off of my music player (imagine if my Walkman had this!) that uses GPS to track where I am, places it on a map, and tells me how far I’ve run, how long I’ve run, the elevation I’ve covered.  It’s kind of magical.

It’s so cool, but I’ve had to force myself to stop using it.

iMapMyRun is perfect for the kind of runner I used to want to be: wanting to know my pace, know how today’s run compared with yesterday’s, know how far I ran this week down to a tenth of a mile.  But I stopped using it.

Why?  Because you get what you measure.  And knowing that all that information was being recorded was making me care more about the numbers at the end of the run than the run itself.

My goal on yesterday’s run was to have as much of the run as possible be enjoyable, and I don’t get that when my per-mile time is being tracked.  I don’t get joy by knowing my pace.  In fact it detracts from what I’m trying to do.

Measuring is fine, just make sure the things you’re tracking are the things you want the most of.  If iMapMyRun could tell me how much of my run I spent relaxed, smiling, dropping my shoulders, taking easy strides, and not worrying about the next hill, then it would be the software for me.

(Oh, and this post isn’t just about running).

Bejeweled moves

Recently, before boarding a transatlantic flight, I caved to the impulse to buy an iPhone app, and $2.99 later I was the proud owner of Bejeweled 2, the only game in the app store that I’d ever heard of.

By way of background, I should share that two decades ago I was know to wile away many a college campus visit (and, subsequently, a reasonable portion of first semester freshman year), playing Tetris into the wee hours of the morning on Apple LC computers.   I still have a soft spot for the mindless computer puzzler – though with drastically less time on my hands.

Bejeweled works as follows: your job is to make groupings of three or more jewels in a line; you can only move two adjacent jewels at a time; and for a move to be legal it must create a group of three.

It isn’t a great game, but it has one aspect that I find fascinating.  The way the game is programmed, there is always a legal move to be made – which is surprising since they’re often hard to find and the rules governing the game are so simple.  And this is the nut of what fascinates me: even knowing this, and even in the confines of a simple, 8×8 board, it’s easy to convince yourself that there are no moves to play.

The practice of playing, then, is as a chance to remind yourself that, no matter what you see, there’s always a move for you to make.  You get to see yourself talk yourself out of what is possible, time and time again, until you finally learn that you can always make a move.

Feels a lot like life to me: seeing the board, seeing the moves you think you can make, not seeing anything that’s possible, and telling yourself – even though you know the opposite to be true – that there’s nothing that you can do.

There’s always a move to make.  There’s always something you can do to make yourself better, to move forward, to make a change.  Always.  No matter what.

 

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Breaking point

When do you push so hard that customers get to the breaking point?  And do you think you hear much from them until the moment when they’ve had it with you?

Here’s what you have to do in order NOT to run up a $4,000 cellphone bill when traveling internationally with your iPhone.

  1. Figure out your monthly data usage (either by logging on to the AT&T website, assuming you know how to do that, or knowing to ask the customer service rep this, after 5 minutes of navigating the voice response system).  Mine is nearly 300MB on an iPhone 3GS
  2. Pre-buy a certain amount of “international data” (sold in 20MB, 50MB, 100MB, and 200MB increments)
  3. Pray that this sticks (it didn’t for me, so I had to do this twice, once from the US and once from abroad…what would I do without Skype?)
  4. Go on your international trip and use your phone.  (Note: phone calls still cost at least $1/minute)
  5. Come home and tell them you’re through with the data service
  6. (oh, and there’s a catch here — if you discontinue after two weeks they only credit you with half of the data you purchased, so if you bought 100MB, used 75MB, disable the international plan after two weeks, you’ll be charged $4/MB for the 25MB “over” you went)

Why share all this detail?  Just to illustrate the 2+ hours I had to invest to figure this out (and hope that I’m saving others this wasted time).  Do you think AT&T is trying to make me happy or make as much money off of me as they can?  And aren’t iPhone users their best customers?

Imagine if they put as much effort into making their best customers happy as they do into creating a system that naturally results in “gotcha” $4,000 cellphone bills which date back to 2007

You know when you’re treating your customers right and when you’re milking them for all they’re worth.  Which strategy do you think is going to work in the long term?

(Oh, and this is the same thinking that got us into the subprime mortgage mess.)

1/100th the cost

Faithful readers will recall that two months ago I gave in to years of craving and ditched my BlackBerry for an iPhone.   What I’ve discovered since then is that the iPhone is a Trojan Horse, an uber-device pretending to be a phone.  This is why the “there’s an app for that” campaign makes so much sense.  With a big screen, a fast processor, and a 3G network, this device can perform some amazing tricks.

While I’m not a big app user, I can’t help but crow about an app I just found, called MotionX-GPS Drive.   Quite simply, it delivers the full functionality of a portable GPS device – with turn-by-turn directions, a voice telling you when to make the turn, a map that updates your location in real time, etc. – and you can do all this while still listening to music on your iPod.   For my needs, this does essentially the same thing as a $350 Tom Tom for $2.99.  That’s right, two dollars and ninety nine cents.  It costs 1/100th of the price of the product it aims to displace (plus $2.99/month subscription.).

Outside of being excited that I have an additional $347.01 in my pocket, this got me thinking about disruptive innovations in the nonprofit sector.  CK Prahalad introduced the concept of radically lower costs structures as necessary for creating solutions for the poor that will have massive potential for scale and impact — citing among other things the Jaipur foot, an artificial limb which costs $40 and sets an amputee walking again.  But is there really a world of “1/100th the cost” innovations out there, waiting to be discovered, or are the real gems the 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/6th the cost interventions that, if discovered across multiple sectors – healthcare, housing, water, energy, agriculture, even education – together hold the potential for a radical shift in the livelihoods of millions?

Put another way, is “1/100th” the cost just about the economics of Moore’s law and software development, or would we find many more of these if the right economic incentives were in place?

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My iPhone story…finally

Change is hard, right?  Or maybe not.  So here’s the experiment.  I’ve been a heavy (obsessive?) Blackberry user for almost a decade.  And I’ve been fawning over the iPhone since it came out two years ago.  But I kept on convincing myself that the Blackberry won hands down for everything I needed (mostly sending and receiving email), so it didn’t matter that the  iPhone would win for everything I wanted.

A few days ago, I caved, barreled into the Apple store, and bought an iPhone.  Why?

The starting point is the story.  Apple has woven a captivating story about an uber-device that will make me more hip, more connected, and generally part of the ‘in’ crowd (never mind that they’ve sold more than 21 million so far– the story just isn’t true any more, objectively.  But it can still be true to me).  I’ve come across this iPhone story literally hundreds of times, not just in mass media, but every time I see yet another pair of white earbuds (which I used to see often) or people gazing longingly at their iPhones on NY street corners (more common now).  And even though I said ‘no thanks’ a hundred times, on the hundred and first time, I said ‘yes.’ That was Story #1.

Now on to Story #2, which started when I bought the iPhone.  This is the story I’m telling myself now that I’ve given in.  The story is, “I love this thing, never mind the typing and switching applications and the battery life, and some sync hiccups,  and, and, and…”  The long story Apple told me about how much I was going to love the iPhone has turned into a story I tell myself about how much I do love the iPhone (30 day return policy be damned).  Every time I find something frustrating about the iPhone, I explain away the cognitive dissonance in one way or another.

All a helpful reminder of how many stories are at play in every customer (donor) relationship.  The right (and the wrong) stories keep on replaying, morphing, and multiplying, and your customers spend time looking to reinforce the stories you tell – and the ones they tell themselves – at every turn.

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