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Obsolescence

Posted by: Editor on 4/28/2011

Yesterday we were struck by the following headline: “The World’s Last Typewriter Factory Closes in India.”  This headline immediately made us think of two things – 1) obsolescence and 2) ball pythons!  Obsolescence is what happens when something, perhaps a product or a service, is no longer needed, wanted, or usable.  In today’s world, people probably most closely identify obsolescence with technology and technological innovation.  We think that, in many respects, the same principles apply to ball pythons.  Read on if interested in our thoughts.

There are four main types of obsolescence: technical obsolescence, functional obsolescence, planned obsolescence, and popular obsolescence.  We thought we’d run through each type of obsolescence here, inclusive of a few examples.  A little off topic, you might say?  After all, this is a blog devoted to herpetological investigations!  Well, in our view, the selective breeding of ball pythons (or any livestock, for that matter) is EXACTLY analogous to the types of technological innovation we commonly associate with flat panel TVs or microprocessors.

Let’s start with technical obsolescence.  There are a number of ways we can define technical obsolescence.  We could say it’s the depreciation of the value of current technology by new, more advanced products or services.  We could also say that technical obsolescence occurs simply when a new product replaces an older, less sophisticated product.  The original VHS cassette player (VCR) was a technical marvel, with original models costing in excess of $50,000!  Today the VCR is virtually irrelevant; instead, people watch DVDs, order movies on demand, or subscribe to Netflix.  You can buy a VCR on eBay for less than $25.  What about the iPod?  The first iPod was expensive with minimal storage.  Today the most current version of the iPod is far cheaper with much greater storage capacity.  This is technical obsolescence.  Even though the product technically still works, newer, better, more desirable technologies and products render the old technology obsolete. 

Functional obsolescence is a slightly different concept.  Functional obsolescence occurs when the usability of a product or service is limited due to its inability to serve a user’s current needs.  Basically, it no longer works the way it did when you bought it.  It could be because the product can no longer function as originally intended because of an outdated design feature, perhaps because replacement parts are no longer produced or an old programming language is no longer supported.  Again the iPod serves as an example.  The current generation of iTunes no longer serves older models of the iPod.  Because these older iPods can no longer sync with current versions of iTunes, they are rendered obsolete for most users!  It looks like you’ll have to buy that new iPod – perhaps Steve Jobs really is a genius!

Planned obsolescence, the third form of obsolescence, is a bit of a different animal and it involves the first two forms of obsolescence discussed above.  The concept is pretty simple here – the corporation or marketer in questions designs products or services so that they become obsolete within a predetermined period of time, thereby forcing consumers to purchase the newer version of the product or service at a specific time in the foreseeable future.  iPad anyone?  The first version of the iPad was heavy and didn’t have a camera.  Do you think Apple didn’t have the capability to shrink the product and include a camera on the original iPad?  Of course they did!  They rolled out the original iPad with planned obsolescence firmly in mind!  And it worked – we have an iPad 1 and an iPad 2!  Over the last decade Apple has proven itself to be the master of planned obsolescence!  We are very well aware of this fact, yet we’re still suckers for it – we had the first iPhone, the 3Gs, and now the iPhone 4!  We’ve purchased every version of the iPod, and we’re well on our way to doing the same with the iPad, ughh!!!  Don't think for a second that certain ball python breeders don't understand the prinicples of planned obsolescence - they absolutely do, and they often plan the release of their products with planned obsolescence top of mind, just like Steve Jobs. 

Finally, we have popularity obsolescence.  This is perhaps the most cyclical form of obsolescence and differs substantially from the first three.  With the first three, once the product becomes obsolete, it usually never regains its previous position of usefulness.  With popularity obsolescence, we’re not talking about something that is technically or functionally obsolete.  We’re talking about something that is out of style!  This could be related to clothes and fashion trends, haircuts or hamburgers.  With popular obsolescence, a product can always swing back to popularity.  The common example is bell bottoms.  Bell bottoms have fluctuated from in style, to obsolete, to back in style, and our suspicion is that these types of cyclical fluctuations will recur in the future.  This type of obsolescence is less interesting to us.

So how does this all relate to ball pythons?  Ball pythons, in their essence, are a technology product at heart.  Every year, the digital code as defined by their DNA evolves, driven by selective breeders striving to produce the next new thing.  What was cool, new and interesting last year becomes old hat the next.  In the early 2000s, a male pinstripe ball python cost $25,000.  Today there are those that would sell you a male pinstripe for $250.  That’s a 99% reduction in price over less than a decade and matches very closely the price depreciation curve of the VCR – technical obsolescence in action!  Yes, the $25,000 pinstripe of 2002 has been rendered obsolete!  But has anything taken its place?  The spinner blast?  The pastel lesser pinstripe?  How about the coral glow enchi pastel pinstripe het pied?  What would you pay for that snake, especially if it was a male?  Our guess is that you couldn’t find that animal for less than $50,000. 

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the essence of technological innovation.  If you want to keep selling pinstripes at $25,000, they better have increasingly rare and desirable genes embedded in the end product.  Just like the television, if you want to sell a given unit at a stable price point, it better have new innovation embedded in its design.  For TVs, the screen better be larger, thinner, and higher in resolution, otherwise the price you can charge for that TV is going to decline rapidly (after all, it’s a commodity!).  The same holds true for ball pythons.  You need to create genetic combinations that appeal to the collector’s eye.  At the end of the day, this boils down to selection, personal preference, and visually stunning combinations.  A male piebald would have set you back over $25,000 a decade ago.  Today we have the same males for sale for less than $800.  A bummer, you say?  We would respond with the following – have you tried to buy an albino piebald male recently?  We would challenge you to find one for less than $20,000.  This is technological innovation in action.  The rule is simple – you MUST innovate to sell the same volume of product at the same price point.  If you don’t innovate, your products and services will succumb to the vagaries of competition and commoditization.

And what about our typewriter factory in India?  Apparently the factory has converted to producing refrigerators instead.  The typewriter, sadly, is no longer produced anywhere on planet earth!  Does this mean the innovations of the original typewriter have left us for good?  Have you ever heard of the “Qwerty” keyboard?  If you’re reading this blog on a desktop, take a glance down at your keyboard.  The first five letters of the top “letter” row spell “Qwerty.”  The following is the story of why, taken with much appreciation from ideafinder.com:

The first practical typewriter was patented in the United States in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes. His machine was known as the type-writer. It had a movable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard on which the letters were arranged in alphabetical order.

But Sholes had a problem. On his first model, his "ABC" key arrangement caused the keys to jam when the typist worked quickly. Sholes didn't know how to keep the keys from sticking, so his solution was to keep the typist from typing too fast.

He did this using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who was Sholes' chief financial backer. The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes' solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.

So there you have it!  The keyboard you currently use to type all of your emails was purposefully designed to slow you down so your type-writer wouldn’t jam!  Even though we’ve moved past the typewriter as an obsolete technology, we continue to rely on a technical convention spurred by its adoption, even though today that technical innovation is completely obsolete!  Pull up the digital "keyboard" on your iPad and you will find "QWERTY" very much in force, even though technically it has long outlived its usefulness.  Just like the "QWERTY" keyboard, we hope to find regular pintripes still available twenty years from now, long after they've "technically" become obsolete!

HVH

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