Friday, October 9, 2009

Fidelity Swap

A friend of mine, Kevin Maney, just published a book called, "Trade Off -- Why Some Things Catch on and Others Don't". In this book he introduces a concept that he calls "The Fidelity Swap".

Simply put Kevin believes that we as consumers continuously decide between a high fidelity experience or the convenience of something simple. Kevin has the benefit of having been in a unique situation for the past quarter century. For most of that time he wrote a technology column for USA Today. From his post he has covered the most important story's as technology changed before us -- and possibly more important -- he has personally interviewed the genius behind many of the decisions that forced these changes -- Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Ted Leonsis (AOL), Irving Wladawsky-Berger (IBM), to name a few. So he observed this phenomenon first hand and has now reported on it in a useful fashion.

So let me describe Kevin's "The Fidelity Swap" quickly. There are two axis by which a product or service can be delivered to the consumer. The vertical axis is the fidelity of the product -- how complex is the product in terms of delivering a high-bandwidth sensory interchange. The example he uses is attending a live event such as Cirque du Soleil or a rock concert. These events are live and high fidelity, but they are very inconvenient. The horizontal axis hosts the convenience of a product. Down loading Aerosmith's, "Walk This Way" onto your Ipod has become one of the easier things to do in life -- it's much more convenient than going to see them live in concert. As consumers we constantly make this swap, the convenience of 7/11 vs the fidelity of Whole Foods. The convenience of Pay Per View vs the fidelity of going to the big game. And it's been the same, seemingly, for as long as there has been a market for goods and services.

There are two additional aspects of the fidelity swap to understand -- first, if you are striving to create a product that has both high fidelity and high convenience, you are chasing what he terms the fidelity mirage. That product simply cannot exist. Second, if you are below the threshold for either the product of highest fidelity or of highest convenience you are stuck in the fidelity belly and must either improve along one of the axises or go lose to one of your competitors who is furher out in one of the directions, either higher fidelity or more convenient.

Now, to apply this concept to the business I am in, Kevin asserts that the US Armed Forces are always chasing super-fidelity in their products and services. I believe that this is true and could be the subject of another book -- dragging in Network Centric Warfare and it's ilk as an example. Ironically, as any war fighter knows by experience, the more convenient a lethal force is to use the more deadly it becomes and conversely the more complex a system is to use, the greater chance of getting killed while trying to figure it in combat. Unfortunately with the institution of the Armed Forces chasing high fidelity and the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine chasing convenience, by definition our Armed Forces are chasing the fidelity mirage.

You can't have both - the result of chasing the mirage has been, of course, the endless list of failed acquisition programs in our DoD. I have explored some other examples of the DoD with Kevin, perhaps he will indeed write a second book. But the subject of today's blog, apart from introducing everyone to the concept of the Fidelity Swap, is to suggest one more thing in light of a recent decision to kill the Ugov email service. As background, the Ugov mail service is simply a web based email for the government similar to Gmail, except with a few features like being hosted on government servers that makes the content a little less public. It allows collaboration and integration across a disparate community in a very big way. My theory is that anything convenient in the military is inherently perceived as a security risk by legions of security personnel who actually believe that an email never sent is the most secure. The reaction to enhance security will force development decisions further up the fidelity axis thereby eliminating efficiency and thus convenience. We see this again and again. A good idea comes forward -- everybody loves it. The bureaucracy descends and the idea is choked to death.

When I first opened my Ugov account I couldn't wipe the smile of my face and said to myself, "This is too good to be true". Well, we can be assured that the next series of decisions that occur will ensure that Ugov is and was too good to be true, and that whatever follows will be far less convenient. As of this posting the decision still stands to kill the service because of a percieved problem with security. I guess in a way I would rather they kill the service than to begin strapping on countless layers of security until ultimately the service is so cumbersome it will cease to be useful. At least this way we can get started searching for a new way to integrate and collaborate so we are ready when they pull the plug that send us back down into the fidelity belly.

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