Thursday, December 2, 2010

Coffee and Innovation

Jeff Tucker writes:

To understand why the Keurig coffee maker is firing up the forces of history in a progressive direction, we need to reflect on the dynamics of the relentless technological trend from the collective to the individual...

This relentless push to fulfill the demands of individualism is the driving force of human history.
And so it is with coffee. For too long we've lived with a community form of delivery. Whatever collectivist pot was made for the whole group is what we drank. Never mind that it is burned from the heating pad. Never mind that it is too strong or too weak, too dark or too light, or that it is just plain gross. Never mind that the preparation and clean up requires that we stare at unappetizingly soaked coffee grounds that clog our sinks and stink up our trash. It was what we had, and we made do.

Then came Starbucks and other specialized shops. Here we could order what we wanted and every drink was prepared fresh and according to our specifications. We are all, after all, individuals, each of us with different tastes, desires, and demands. When given the chance to express our wishes, we take it, and therein lies a great entrepreneurial opportunity for those who are daring and creative enough, and willing to take on the responsibility for giving history a push forward.

In retrospect, the whole Keurig mania seems perfectly obvious, even inevitable. We want Starbucks in our homes. We want endless variety. We want it to be fast. We do not want to wake up to the shattering sound of coffee beans in a horrible grinding machine. In fact, though we had never thought of it before, we do not want to look at coffee grounds, before or after they become soaked.

When you first observe the K-cup that Keurig uses, your thought might be: this is ridiculously inefficient. Why would anyone take a tiny amount of coffee and package it in plastic with a complicated internal filtering system and waste foil to cover the top just to produce a single cup of coffee? But you know what? History is not about some outsider's view of what is or is not efficient according to some preset calculus. History is about the ideas and preferences of real human beings.

K-cups also owe their success to a software-style model of development. Keurig developed the hardware and sold it (and its K-cup patent) to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The company might have then to decided to cash in on its monopoly privileges but GMCR seemed to understand that there are profits to be made through liberality than restriction. It licensed many different companies to produce the K-cup firmware, so that now there is a gigantic market for these things, and even a market for contraptions to display them.

When the patent expires in 2012, the price of the K-cup will probably fall but the blow to GMCR will be minimal (as this blogger argues) because so many are already competing for market share. Note too that the mainstreaming of the K-cup came only after this liberalization; only as recently as 2007, when you only found these coffee makers in upscale law firms, was the company still hammering knock-off cup makers with lawsuits.

When the patent expires next year, all bets are off. I fully predict that the next generation will never see another coffee ground, never have to deal with grungy wet filters, any more than people who eat bacon today have to watch pigs being rounded up and slaughtered. The division of labor will kick in so that consumers have only one job to do: drink great coffee according to their own individual preferences.

read the essay

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