There’s been a lot of hyperventilating over the recent news that Green Mountain is going to start cracking down on competitors designing coffee pods for their gross coffee makers:
With its single-serving coffee pods, Green Mountain Coffee has transformed the business of brew. Pop a capsule into one of the company’s Keurig machines, and the machine will instantly churn out your daily caffeine dose.
But Green Mountain doesn’t want copycats taking the business it pioneered away. That’s why CEO Brian Kelley says its new coffee makers will include technology that prevents people from using pods from other companies. The approach has been compared to DRM restrictions that limit the sharing of digital music and video online. But more than just curbing your coffee choices, Green Mountain’s protections portend the kind of closed system that could gut the early promise of the Internet of Things — a promise that hinges on a broad network of digital, connected devices remaking the everyday world.
Cory Doctorow thinks it’s a bridge too far and might end up promoting a backlash, or that Green Mountain’s overzealousness might end up with good court rulings against them. Dan Gillmor isn’t bothered by the coffee pods per se but takes a rather grander tone in conclusion:
We’re still in the early days of this war – and make no mistake, that’s what we face. The interests that want control over our lives and pocketbooks are wealthy and powerful. People are waking up to the threat. Now we all need to fight back.
I don’t disagree with either, really, but am a bit more sanguine in general, because of Microsoft Windows. Windows might be a bit of a punchline these days, but I’m old enough to remember when it was an existential threat to commerce and resulted in one of the biggest antitrust cases ever. Though the ruling ended up going against Microsoft, the remedies were, through our current view, pretty minor. There were no Baby Bills, and Microsoft continued to have a crushing monopoly on the operating system and office productivity suite market, and make money hand over fist.
And then… the world changed. Microsoft continued to fundamentally misunderstand the Internet, and Apple managed not to go out of business and then became the plucky underdog and then the one of world’s most profitable corporations. Google won the search wars and then started eating everything remotely related (and not) in sight; Facebook was the best/last SNS. And Microsoft still had a massively profitable near-monopoly on the operating system and office productivity suite markets. The Beige Eminence of Redmond continues to have a massive role in day-to-day life around the world, often in problematic ways. But the last 15 years of tech history have shown that despite market control and massive profits, Microsoft cannot shape events entirely to their liking. They were chastened by U.S. v Microsoft, sure, but remain far more chastened by the fact that Internet Explorer and Bing are terrible and nobody likes them. Billions of person-hours are spent annually in computers with Microsoft OSes and in Word and Excel – but that hasn’t changed the fact that Microsoft cannot understand at a very basic level, the things that people spend most of their time doing on computers.
So: coffee pods. Coffee pods were a good idea as a response to legitimately terrible/inconsistent office coffee; to people who like coffee but don’t think about it too much and like not having to clean up coffee grounds (but seriously people, COMPOST, that is some good compost there); and a clever dumbed-down cashing-in on wider use of espresso machines. I briefly worked a job where the office had one – that was great, because otherwise the coffee would have been worse-than-mediocre, in all likelihood; I like it when I stay in a hotel and there’s a coffee pod machine there. But I’ve never for a second considered getting one, myself.
But mostly, coffee pods are a cheap plastic mediocrity, a Beige Eminence which performs the task of producing coffee product with little thought nor distinction. The principle of defending markets from monopolistic domination is important within a system of regulated capitalism (see: US broadband access), but in this case, what is the principle really defending? The opportunity for other suppliers to make a slightly-thinner margin on a mediocre way of delivering coffee to office workers and lazy suburbanites? And there are plenty of other coffee pod standards. It’s also not as if there’s any lack of ways to make – much better! just as easily! – coffee. Or tea. Green Mountain’s power play is, ultimately, a small-time move that doesn’t really impact important innovation in coffee delivery systems. It’s also a natural impulse and end result of our particular market system, and isn’t really worth worrying about until and unless a number of lawsuits that haven’t happened yet have bad results.