In defense of Keurig
[after reading Marcus Wohlsen’s “Why Copyrighted Coffee May Cripple the Internet of Things" in Fast Company]
Keurig has announced that its new coffeemakers will have technology that ensures that they’ll only work with Keurig pods, not with those of other coffee companies. The Fast Company article takes this to be the “canary in the coal mine” for big problems of openness and interoperability for the Internet of Things. I don’t agree.
Connected devices (consumer or industrial) will only proliferate if there are businesses behind them. It’s not going to work to require companies to confine themselves to narrow areas based on some broad philosophical allegiance to “openness.” I’m not an expert in the coffee business, but I could easily imagine that there’s some consumer resistance to paying too much for a machine, but less resistance on pricing for the pods as people might compare that cost to coffee shop prices. As such, it makes a lot of sense for Keurig to provide the machine as a loss leader — as with computer printers/ ink, razors/ blades, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that model, it’s just a model. Companies can choose to restrict interoperability, either through proprietary physical interfaces or electronics. If the overall package is not a good value and there’s demand for something else, there’s space in the market that will be filled by a competitor.
The article compares Keurig’s actions to the use of DRM in music. At first I disagreed with this also, but after thinking about it more I think it’s a fair comparison, just not a criticism of Keurig any more than it’s a criticism of DRM. If Apple can strike a deal with music labels that subsidizes the price of music, and in return you can only use it on Apple devices, that’s a transaction, and (maybe) a sustainable business. It’s not perfect, and so others rise to fill the space (Spotify, Rdio, Beats, etc.). You will only restrict innovation if you limit business models in this manner.
Wohlsen is correct that over time all the various connected devices will require a much higher level of interoperability built-in in order to be effective. This is true, and we’ve seen this pattern develop and be solved in many industries — from computer networking and optical switches to email messaging. In the early days of new things that’s not the way, in fact there are often new businesses that exist for the sole purpose of patching together the useful standalone devices as a bridge to the future interconnected world.
It’s more a question of the level at which the interoperability takes place. To use the Keurig example, if the machine was communicating “upward” to a higher-level Beverage Management System, then I could see a case for that communication using open standards, in both directions. It is common (read: “I’ve tried to do this myself”) to keep that link proprietary, at least for some time. That link, though, tends to be weak and gets broken. You either have such a good Beverage Management System that people want to use it, or you have such a good coffee maker & coffee, or (if you’re lucky) both. It has to be pretty great coffee for people to put up with the rest of the system if they don’t want it, just because you choose to keep it closed.
If there are areas (such as water supply) in which there is a compelling public interest to have more interoperability sooner than it might emerge, we would need a more direct public policy to support that. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect private enterprise to develop that in the absence of a commercial interest.