All posts filed under “Razor blade model

Dishonourable discharge?

Nokia phone with battery visible

Long overdue, I’m currently reading Bruce Schneier‘s excellent Beyond Fear, and realising that in many ways, security thinking overlaps with architectures of control: the goal of so many systems is to control users’ behaviour or to deny the user the ability to perform certain actions. I’ll post a fuller comparison and analysis in due course, but one example Bruce mentions in passing seemed worth blogging separately:

Nokia spends about a hundred times more money per phone on battery security than on communications security. The security system senses when a consumer uses a third-party battery and switches the phone into maximum power-consumption mode; the point is to ensure that consumers buy only Nokia batteries.

Nokia is prepared to spend a considerable amount of money solving a security problem that it perceives – it loses revenue if customers buy batteries from someone else – even though that solution is detrimental to consumers.

As a battery authentication method, this is more subtle than the systems we’ve looked at before, which actually refuse to allow the device to operate if a non-original-manufacturer battery (or perhaps charger) is used.

Nokia’s system attempts to persuade the customer that the new (cheaper) battery he or she has bought is “no good” by making the phone discharge the battery more quickly – in an extremely underhanded way. From the point of view of the (uninformed) consumer, though, it makes Nokia look good. “Oh, that cheap battery I bought is rubbish, it doesn’t seem to hold its charge. Nokia make them so much better, guess I should stick to them in future.”

But if the Nokia batteries were genuinely ‘better’ than the cheap replacement ones, surely this kind of underhanded tactic wouldn’t be necessary?

P.S. I have no idea whether this Nokia ‘trick’ is real/common/still used, as Beyond Fear has no references, or whether other manufacturers do something similar (as opposed to outright battery authentication-and-denial). I’ll ask a friend at Nokia.

P.P.S. Jason Kottke also noted this tactic back in 2003.

Another charging opportunity?

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor

Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of “Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use” – effectively a ‘charging rights management’ system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers’ comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend’s charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to ‘charge’ the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried‘s Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem‘s Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple’s patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed – in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never ‘seen’ before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple’s (patent attorneys’) rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

…is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user – not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It’s also interesting to see the description of “valuable data”: surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about ‘unauthorised’ copies existing! But I doubt that’s even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example – if the device doesn’t come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real ‘theft deterrent’ benefit. How long before the ‘security’ system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O’Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

Bad profits

Image from Sevenblock (Flickr)
Image from Sevenblock (Flickr)
The Gillette Sensor Excel not only comes with a dummy blade, it also only comes with two out of five possible blade slots filled. Images from Sevenblock on Flickr.

The razor-blade model in general is something of an old chestnut as far as architectures of control go, and we’ve covered it in a number of different contexts on this site over the past couple of years. But it’s always interesting to see it in action with razors themselves, especially if the strategy has become even less consumer-friendly. Via the This Is Broken pool on Flickr, in which ‘Sevenblock‘ talks about Gillette’s use of a dummy blade and dummy slots on the Sensor Excel packaging, I learned of Fred Reichheld’s concept of ‘bad profits’:

…there is something disappointing with the set-up of buying a new razor. This razor reminded me of Fred Reichheld.

The blade which arrives pre-attached to the razor is fake. Is it dangerous to use a real one? Perhaps.

No, it is a set-up to dupe customers into grabbing a new razor and heading to the mirror only to realize that they are holding a plastic faux blade. Then, turn over the packaging, and two razors are held in a spot for five. Another subtle sigh from the customer.

Why not surprise the customer in the other direction? “Wow, five blades! For less than 20 dollars.” Because that’s what happens when you go to refill. BJs and Costco have good deals on bulk blades.

Reichheld’s idea is, effectively, that a company’s strategies can centre on creating ‘good profits’ or ‘bad profits’:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more—and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

The full article is well worth a read, as, I expect, Reichheld’s book The Ultimate Question is too (though one reviewer on Amazon also offers some succinctly persuasive criticism).

The basic concept, that the ‘ultimate question’ of whether or not a customer would recommend a company is the key to growth is a good way of articulating, from a business perspective, the message of consumer advocacy that so many from Ralph Nader and Vance Packard to Consumerist and Seth Godin have promulgated over the years, though of course the ‘Why?’ and ‘Why not?’ are crucial. But Reichheld’s simple identification of ‘good profit’ and ‘bad profit’ seems to be a very clever way of looking at the issue: the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels refer to the effect on the company itself as well as on the customer, since a company reliant on bad profits will, one would assume, ultimately, lose its customer base (unless there are no alternatives – Brand Autopsy has an interesting piece on this in relation to car rental firms).

Most commercially driven architectures of control, then (as opposed to politically driven ones) would seem to be designed to extract value from customers (unwilling or ignorant), and thus might be described as bad profit-seeking, by Reichheld’s definition. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow on DRM, it’s unlikely that any customers wake up and say, “Damn, I wish there was a way to have my actions deliberately constrained for commercial gain by the products and services I use.” Hence, it’s unlikely that customers will evangelise or even recommend products and systems which give them a lousy experience. They may accept them grudgingly, as most of us do with many commercial (and political) interactions every day, but once a ‘good profit’ alternative becomes available and widely known about, they won’t hesitate to switch. I hope.

Maybe ‘good profits’ and ‘bad profits’ are too simplistic as terminologies, much like Jakob Nielsen’s ‘Evil design’ comments, but even a continuum between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ profit intentions is a useful way of thinking about the merits or otherwise of corporate strategies, particularly with customer service, products, pricing, rent-seeking, gouging, lock-in and so on.

More thoughts on the Eaton MEM BC3, CFLs and Power Factor

Light bulbs

UPDATE: See this more recent post for information and photos of how to get a 2-pin bulb to fit in a BC3 fitting.

BC3 reactions

The post looking at the Eaton MEM BC3 system, a couple of months ago, has become something of a reference for UK householders and renters trying to work out why they can’t fit a normal 2-pin bayonet compact fluorescent (or other bulb) in the light fittings of their new house or flat – or so I assume from some of the search strings in the server logs.

Some comments from readers highlight the frustration and inconvenience caused by the 3-pin system – and in these cases it’s people trying to use CFLs in the fittings. They’re trying to be energy-efficient, trying to comply with government advice indeed, yet a combination of ill-thought-out regulations and a razor-blade-style commercial lock-in architecture of control is preventing their success. As an example of ‘reducing the environmental impact of products by using design to change user behaviour‘, the BC3 seems to be a poorly thought-out initiative.

MEM BC3 compared with standard 2-pin bayonet CFL

Increasing CFL uptake

Elsewhere, on the subject of CFLs, Duncan Drennan of The Art of Engineering blog has a very informative post looking at aspects of the CFL argument, such as comparing colour rendering indices, which are less often addressed in media articles on the subject. As Duncan makes clear – even including a spreadsheet to calculate the savings – the monetary arguments in terms of electricity saved are probably a more direct way to persuade many people than using environmental arguments.

Duncan also mentions the higher-end CFLs such as the Osram Dulux Superstar (which has a quicker start-up time to full brightness than standard CFLs). Along with CFLs which are shaped more like conventional incandescent bulbs (such as the version of the Osram Duluxstar, third from left in the first photo below), or even with more interesting forms, such as the concepts by Dutch designer Jacob de Baan (second image below), these surely have the potential to convert more householders to CFLs: the standard 3 U-tube design is rather ugly.

Some types of CFL compared with a 150W incandescent
Bulbs by Jacob de Baan
Above: Some types of CFL (from left: Tesco Value, GE Elegance and Osram Duluxstar) lined up next to a burned-out incandescent bulb. Note that the Osram Duluxstar – basically a standard 3 U-tube CFL with a bulb-shaped cover – is taller than even the 150W incandescent, due to the space taken up by the ballast, and this extra length can be a problem when using CFLs in existing light fixtures, shades, etc. Some companies, such as Sylvania with its Mini-Lynx Ambience range, have addressed this by making CFLs with shorter tubes and ballast such that the whole thing is the same size as a standard incandescent bulb. Below: Three CFL concepts by Jacob de Baan. Apologies for the scan quality (the images are from The Eco-Design Handbook, 2004 edition, by Alastair Fuad-Luke).

Power Factor

A rarely mentioned issue with CFLs which I realised recently (courtesy of a letter by Andrew Porter in The Engineer, a UK journal), is that of power factor. Not having studied electricity generation for some time, this is something I’d shoved to the back of my mind, but essentially it results from the phase shift between voltage and current caused by a reactive (capactive or inductive) load as opposed to a purely reactive one, and means that the actual power supplied by the power station (in volt-amps) will be greater than that indicated by simply looking at the wattage (in watts), where reactive loads are involved.

A normal incandescent filament bulb is an almost entirely resistive load, and the voltage and current will be in phase (hence a power factor of 1). But a CFL – with a significant proportion of capacitive load due to the ballast – will have a much lower power factor, perhaps only 0.5. This means that a ’15W’ CFL actually requires 30VA from the power station – which the private customer will not pay for directly, since home electricity meters only measure watts, but it is still equivalent to needing to supply double the power. That increase in necessary generation can’t be ignored: the consumer will pay for it one way or another.

Rod Elliott has a detailed examination of why the power factor should certainly be taken into account when looking at CFLs in a policy context and it’s very much worth reading for a better understanding of the issue. While fluorescent lighting ballasts with high power factors (0.95+) are available (in industrial situations, a large customer will often have to pay for the actual VA drawn by large reactive loads, such as motors), they are unlikely to be incorporated any time soon into mass-produced cheap CFLs. Elliott suggests that because fluorescent lighting is so often left on continuously (partly because of the belief that it will last longer if not switched on-and-off), in conjunction with the power factor issue, mass adoption of CFLs may actually increase the electricity used.

I don’t know to what extent policy-makers have taken the power factors of cheap CFLs into account when planning mass conversion initiatives, but in the long run, it would seem that LED home lighting (without a power factor issue), perhaps with DC ring-mains to prevent the need for multiple transformer/rectifiers, is a better solution than total adoption of CFLs.

A bright idea?

UPDATE: See this more recent post for information and photos of how to get a 2-pin bulb to fit in a BC3 fitting.

This may well be the example which involves the most different ‘architecture of control’ issues so far – by a long way. It is a complex case with a number of aspects, intentions and effects to consider. My mind isn’t made up on the rights and wrongs of this: it’s certainly an architecture of control, it’s certainly devious and it’s certainly a case of introducing a razor-blade model (product lock-in) into a field where there was previously none; it will also end up costing many consumers more money, yet it’s founded in an attempt to ‘encourage’/force more environmentally friendly behaviour.

A couple of weeks ago, George Preston let me know about Eaton MEM BC3 light bulbs and fittings. These are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs or ‘energy-saving’ bulbs) which have their own kind of three-pronged bayonet connector (left), as opposed to the standard two-pronged bayonet (right):

BC3 lamp, photo by George Preston
BC3 lamp, photo by George Preston
BC3 fitting - image from MEMLITE brochure
BC3 CFL and standard bayonet CFL compared, and a BC3 fitting. Upper two photos by George Preston; lower photo from BC3 brochure [PDF].

Notice those three prongs are irregularly spaced. A normal bayonet bulb won’t fit in a BC3 fitting, and a BC3 bulb won’t fit in a normal bayonet fitting.

What’s the rationale behind this?

From Approved Document L1 [PDF], an amendment to the UK Building Regulations, which came into force in April 2002 (applying to new-build houses):

1.54 Reasonable provision should be made for dwelling occupiers to obtain the benefits of efficient lighting. A way of showing compliance with the requirement would be to provide at a reasonable number of locations, where lighting can be expected to have most use, fixed lighting (comprising either basic lighting outlets or complete luminaires) that only take lamps having a luminous efficacy greater than 40 lumens per circuit-watt. Circuit-watts means the power consumed in lighting circuits by lamps and their associated control gear and power factor correction equipment. Examples of lamps that achieve this efficacy include fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lamps (not GLS tungsten lamps with bayonet cap or Edison screw bases).

The idea is, then, that since ‘normal’ bayonet fittings can take normal tungsten incandescent filament bulbs as well as normal CFLs – something which has of course driven the more widespread adoption of CFLs – there is the likelihood/possibility that householders might replace any pre-installed CFLs with filament bulbs, for whatever reason (the usual reasons are the colour of the light, the aesthetic appearance of the bulbs, and the warm-up time). To prevent this possibility, a new type of light fitting and associated CFL cap design were required which were uniquely compatible, so that anyone with this kind of fitting would have to fit bulbs with the new cap design, which would only be available on CFLs.

(Note that the same objective could have been achieved by fitting these rooms solely with fittings for commonly available standard linear fluorescent tubes, i.e. strip lights.)

So, Eaton’s MEM 250 division created the BC3 (bayonet-cap-3?) range, being nominated for an Electrical Product Award for Contribution Towards Energy Saving in the process.

What’s interesting is that as well as complete BC3 CFLs and BC3 fittings, the BC3 range includes BC3 base units (with the ballast and control electronics in them) into which a four-pin CFL tube can be plugged:

BC3 lamp unit, from EthicalProductsDirect.com BC3 base unit, from EthicalProductsDirect.com
Left: A tube unit with four pin connector; Right: A BC3 base unit (including ballast) to allow the tube to be attached. Images from Ethical Products Direct.

This allows the tube to be replaced independently of the electronics – thus saving resources – but does not appear to be the focus of the BC3 system. (Just a thought: if more new houses were pre-fitted with these base units, or simply standard 2-pin bayonet base units, within the light fittings, so that a householder would simply go out and replace the tube rather than the whole lot, similarly to the linear fluorescent tube suggestion above, would it not have made for a more environmentally friendly solution?)

Some interesting claims are being made for the BC3 system. Somehow the idea of forcing the householder to buy one particular brand of CFL has been transmuted into a misguided suggestion that the BC3 system actually makes the houses more energy efficient – e.g., from a housing association magazine [PDF] in Wiltshire:

Residents in some of Westlea’s newer homes will know that we now fit special three-way bayonet lamp fittings as one way to make the property more energy efficient. Although the ‘BC3 eco bulbs’ needed for these lamp fittings are more expensive than ordinary lightbulbs, using them in a ‘standard’ house could save the resident around £100 each year because they use less electricity than ordinary lightbulbs. Some residents have told us they have had difficulty buying the three-pin eco bulbs locally, but we’re pleased to report that the following outlets are able to supply them from £6.35 upwards…

From £6.35 each is a lot of money. Standard ‘Tesco Value’ 2-pin bayonet CFLs started at 88p each (Tesco, Egham, Surrey) the last time I looked – that’s especially cheap, and they were only 11W, but 15W units are commonly available from about £2 – £3. Searching Froogle shows that BC3 bulbs start from around £10. Even Ethical Products Direct, to whom Eaton MEM’s own website directs visitors wanting to buy BC3 bulbs, charges £9.36 for the cheapest complete BC3 unit.

This is a lot of money for something which provides the householder with exactly the same function as a standard CFL a quarter the price. (It’s not as if the BC3 bulbs last much longer, for example, or are more efficient. They just have a non-standard fitting and are only supplied by one manufacturer.) In fact, one might suggest that standard CFLs offer the householder more benefit, since they can be swapped around, fitted all over the place, even fitted to replace incandescent filament bulbs in standard fittings, should someone – shock – actually want to choose a CFL without being forced into doing so.

The housing association quote above demonstrates an important point about the use of BC3s. Many householders’ first encounter with them will be when they notice a CFL going dim or actually failing, or want to increase the light levels in a room, and find that they have to spend much more than they were expecting to spend on a CFL anyway. George’s story demonstrates this well:

We have recently moved into a new flat which is part of a modern development in London. A few lightbulbs needed replacing when we moved in, so I went out and bought some (they’re all energy-efficient ones so I bought the same to replace them with). But oddly, none of them would fit in the fittings. I was under the impression that there were just Bayonet and Screw Cap fittings? These fittings were bayonet, but needed three, irregularly-spaced pins instead of the standard two.

I’m no stranger to energy efficiency, and it wouldn’t be so annoying were it not for the fact that the bulb I had bought as a
replacement was an energy-efficient type anyway, but it seems illogical and a shame that properietary fitting sizes have been introduced into something that has always been so simple – choosing a lightbulb.

(Equally, there is the problem of actually getting hold of BC3 bulbs. I went to the enormous B & Q in Slough on Sunday and couldn’t see any on the shelves. While the 8,000 hour lifetime may mean that there’s not a massive demand for them yet from the public, ordering online and waiting for delivery is not really a great option when a light bulb fails. It often causes inconvenience, and can be dangerous – until Incluminate‘s a production reality (!), the best option is to keep spare bulbs in the cupboard. But if you don’t realise that you need to keep special BC3 bulbs, and that these aren’t available from every corner shop or even every massive DIY store, this is going to be extremely inconvenient. The BC3 brochure does mention a “householder card… which can be left with the homeowner highlighting the ‘energy saving’ aspects of their new home” but how many people will remember to stock up on BC3 bulbs as a result?)

Anyway, I think the main issues are:

  • Razor-blade model: monopoly on fitting type means higher prices can be charged for same function, consumers locked in
  • Non-standard fitting likely to cause significant inconvenience to householders
  • But:

  • System does force householders to use ‘energy saving’ bulbs*
  • The BC3 range is also made in the UK, which aside from actually supporting local jobs, means that the units are not transported from China as, say, Tesco Value CFLs are. That saves on transportation energy, at least, and while – looking briefly – I couldn’t find a patent for the BC3 system, I presume Eaton have it protected somehow, otherwise there would surely be cheaper BC3-compatible bulbs available.

    (Another thought is what other proprietary systems – if any – have manufacturers evolved to meet the regulations in part L1? Are there lower-profile rival systems with their own fitting and cap designs? What would the implications be if a particular type were no longer available a few years down the line?)

    Conclusion

    Overall, this is a clever commercial attempt to respond to a governmental decision made with environmental protection in mind, and as such probably ought to be filed along with optimum lifetime products as something where the intention is to benefit society as well as benefit the manufacturer, at the expense of additionally inconveniencing the user. I feel focusing on a system of built-in base units, with readily available standard replacement tubes (either CFLs or linear fluorescent format) would have been more user-friendly as well as reducing the amount of electronics needlessly thrown away, but it would not have permitted a razor-blade model to the same extent.

    It will be interesting to see how the BC3 story develops in the years ahead: will they become commonly available, and how high will public awareness be? There will probably be many more similar products and systems in the next few years using technology to enforce government policy, particularly in an environmental context, and the Eaton MEM BC3 will be an important case study.

    *Of course, there’s a lot that ought to be said about the real merits of a large-scale shift to ‘energy saving’ bulbs, particularly in relation to Australia’s decision to phase out incandescent filament bulbs entirely, the European Lamp Companies’ Federation’s focus on the same, Gordon Brown’s announcement on this, and campaigns such as Ban The Bulb.

    As a designer and engineer, I would suggest that in cold climates, 100W from an incandescent filament bulb means simply that 100 joules per second of heat is going into my room (probably wasting another 200 joules per second at the power station, but that’s another matter). Light bulbs do heat our homes. If we lose 80W from the light bulb, the heating will probably get turned up by 80W instead. Better insulation, so that that heat isn’t lost, may well turn out to be just as good, or better, than mass-replacement of thousands of millions of light bulbs with CFLs requiring significantly more resources to manufacture (and dispose of). Those electronics in the base don’t come from nowhere, and are likely to outlast the fluorescent tube: hence why the idea of replaceable tubes is much more sensible than throwing away and replacing the base unit each time as well. But the bandwagon’s set off and with heavyweight government and heavyweight manufacturers on board, it’s got a lot of momentum…

    Useful terminat-ology

    Image from www.blackflag.com
    Image from Black Flag website.

    Sometimes there’s very useful terminology in one field, or culture, which allows clearer or more succinct explanation of concepts in another. In the UK we don’t have Roach Motels. There are doubtless similar products, but they don’t have such a snappy name, or one which can be repurposed so easily.

    Reading about DRM, file format incompatability and lock-in, I’d come across the term a number of times without necessarily thinking through exactly what it meant when used in this way, not being familiar with the actual product. “You can check data in but you can’t check it out” (possibly in conjunction with some kind of superficially attractive bait) is a good explanation, derived from the actual slogan used on the front of the box. I’m assuming (possibly wrongly) that ‘roach motel’ isn’t especially familiar to most UK readers – do we have an equivalently neat alternative term? Are there equivalents in other languages?