Baiting the trap

by Simon St. Laurent

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A tiny squirrel seems to have taken up residence in my livingroom, and I just set a Havahart trap to catch it. While I was baiting the trap with peanut butter and tasty nuts, and wondering where I would release the poor confused animal, I was pondering another discussion about how companies listen to their customers to stay in business.

Listening to your customers is generally considered a good approach to conducting business. There's the classic line about "Markets are conversations", and companies that don't know what their customers want aren't likely to have very many customers for long - it's a classic and sometimes even sad story.

Listening to customers doesn't necessarily equate to giving customers what they want, however. When an organization intent on making a profit is listening to customers, it's often looking for things that will attract customers but which also provide them with a means of controlling those customers, in particular their spending habits. Using features as lures for product lock-in is a pretty common approach, as is ignoring requests for features that set customers free.

As I was baiting the squirrel trap, I had a specific customer in mind, one I even kind of like watching. I don't plan to kill the customer - this isn't that kind of trap - but I certainly plan to put the squirrel into a cage where I can control his actions for my benefit. My benefit, a squirrel-free house where my food is safe and my dogs aren't barking all the time, is the squirrel's cost, as he won't get to enjoy the free food, heat, and largely predator-free environment inside the walls of my house. I'm certainly hoping to have a conversation with the squirrel, but one in which I benefit and he pretty much loses.

Businesses have much more complicated dynamics than squirrel traps, and human customers tend to be a little bit pickier (we hope) than my friendly squirrel. That's a lot of why I'm interested to see some notoriously controlling companies opening up a bit with open XML formats. Apple is using bits of XML throughout its OS X infrastructure, and developers who know where to look can use that XML to make changes directly to various systems. Microsoft also appears to be opening up its Office applications with XML formats.

Openness is risky. Giving customers genuine choices, including the choice to reuse their information elsewhere, means providing features without laying a trap. That's pretty impressive stuff, perhaps even community service. Or is the trap just larger, its gates further out of sight?

Have tasty features ever locked you in a proprietary cage? Do you worry about open features leading to new kinds of proprietary cages?


2002-11-13 17:56:10
The squirrel's fate
My little dog Sprocket chased the squirrel out the front door and into the great outdoors. The trap is still set in case there are other "customers", but it's looking unlikely.