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One of the great innovations of the 21st century are products that are cloud-connected and update and improve automatically. For software, gone are the days of having to buy a new version of physical media (disks or CD’s.) For hardware it’s the magical ability to have a product get better over time as new features are automatically added.
The downside is when companies unilaterally remove features from their products without asking their customers permission and/or remove consumers’ ability to use the previous versions. Products can just as easily be downgraded as upgraded.
It was a wake up call when Amazon did it with books, disappointing when Google did it with Google Maps, annoying when Apple did it to their office applications – but Tesla just did it on a $100,000 car.
It’s time to think about a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights.
In July 2009 facing a copyright lawsuit Amazon remotely deleted two books users had already downloaded and paid for on their Kindles. Amazon did so without notifying the users, let alone asking their permission. It was a chilling reminder that when books and content are bits instead of atoms, someone can change the content – or simply disappear a book – all without users’ permission. (The irony was the two books Amazon deleted were Animal Farm and 1984.)
Google – Well It Looks Better
In July 2013 Google completely redesigned Google Maps – and users discovered that on their desktop/laptop, the new product was slower than the one it replaced and features that were previously available disappeared. The new Google Maps was worse than the one it replaced – except for one key thing – its user interface was prettier and was unified across platforms. If design was the goal, then Google succeeded. If usability and functionality was a goal, then the new version was a step backwards.
Apple – Our Code Base is More Important than Your Features
In November 2013 Apple updated its operating system and cajoled its customers to update their copies of Apple’s iWork office applications – Pages (Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft Word), Keynote (its PowerPoint equivalent), and Numbers (an attempt to match Excel). To get users to migrate from Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Apple offered these iWorks products for free.
Sounds great– who wouldn’t want the newest version of iWorks with the new OS especially at zero cost? But that’s because you would assume the new versions would have more features. Or perhaps given its new fancy user interface, the same features? The last thing you would assume is that it had fewer features. Apple released new versions of these applications with key features missing, features that some users had previously paid for, used, and needed. (Had they bothered to talk to customers, Apple would have heard these missing features were critical.)
But the release notes for the new version of the product had no notice that these features were removed.
Their customers weren’t amused.
Apple’s explanation? “These applications were rewritten from the ground up, to be fully 64-bit and to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions.”
Translated into English, this meant that Apple engineering recoding the products ran out of time to put all the old features back into the new versions. Apple said, “… some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.
Did they think anyone wouldn’t notice?
Decisions like this make you wonder if anyone on the Apple executive staff actually understood that a “unified file format” is not a customer feature.
While these examples are troubling, up until now they’ve been limited to content or software products.
Tesla – Our Problems are Now Your Problems
In November 2013 Tesla, a manufacturer of ~$70,000 to $120,000 electric cars, used a software “update” to disable a hardware option customers had bought and paid for – without telling them or asking their permission.
One of Tesla features is a $2,250 “smart air suspension” option that automatically lowers the car at highway speeds for better mileage and stability. Over a period of 5 weeks, three Tesla Model S cars had caught fire after severe accidents – two of them apparently from running over road debris that may have punctured the battery pack that made up the floor pan of the car. After the car fires Tesla pushed a software release out to its users. While the release notice highlighted new features in the release, nowhere did it describe that Tesla had unilaterally disabled a key part of the smart air suspension feature customers had purchased.
Only after most of Telsa customers installed the downgrade did Tesla’s CEO admit in ablog post, “…we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speed.”
Translation – we disabled one of the features you thought you bought. (The CEO went on to say that another software update in January will give drivers back control of the feature.) The explanation of the nearly overnight removal of this feature was vague “…reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety” If it wasn’t about safety, why wasn’t it offered as a user-selected option? One could only guess the no notice and immediacy of the release had to do with the National Highway Safety Administration investigation of the Tesla Model S car fires.
This raises the question: When Tesla is faced with future legal or regulatory issues, what other hardware features might it remove or limit in cars in another software release? Adding speed limits? Acceleration limits? Turning off the Web browser when driving? The list of potential downgrades to the car is endless with the precedent now set of no obligation to notify owners or ask their permission.
In the 2oth century, if someone had snuck into your garage and attempted to remove a feature from your car, you’d have called the police. In the 21st century, it’s starting to look like the normal course of business.
What to Do
While these Amazon, Google, Apple, and Tesla examples may appear disconnected, taken together they are the harbinger of the future for 21st century consumers. Cloud-based updates and products have changed the landscape for consumers. The product you bought today may not be the product you own later.
Given there’s no corporate obligation that consumers permanently own their content or features, coupled with the lack of any regulatory oversight of cloud-based products, Apple’s and Tesla’s behavior tells us what other companies will do when faced with engineering constraints, litigation, or regulation. In each of these cases they took the most expedient point of view; they acted as if their customers had no guaranteed rights to features they had purchased. So problem solving in the corporate board room has started with “let’s change the feature set” rather than “the features we sold are inviolate, so let’s solve the problem elsewhere.”
The result is that consumers in the 21st century have less protection then they did in the 20th.
What we can hope for is that smart companies will agree to a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights. What will likely have to happen first is a class-action lawsuit establishing consumers’ permanent rights to retain features they have already purchased.
Some smart startups might find a competitive advantage by offering customer-centric products with an option of “no changes” and “perpetual feature rights” guarantee.
A 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights
- For books/texts/video/music:
- No changes to content paid for (whether on a user’s device or accessed in the cloud)
- For software/hardware:
- Notify users if an update downgrades or removes a feature
- Give users the option of not installing an update
- Provide users an ability to rollback (go back to a previous release) of the software
Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This story originally appeared on his blog.