Using Old Technology To Win Product Battles

by drjim on September 28, 2009

Products That Use Older Technology Can Be Successful

Products That Use Older Technology Can Be Successful

Newer, faster, shinier – these are all things that every product manager wants their product to be. Our hearts are filled with product lust when we see other products, in our space or not, that have the latest & greatest bells and whistles. Oh if only our product could have that cool new technology also. Hang on a minute, it turns out that our products might actually be more successful if they don’t have that cool new technology…

Life Support For Products

If we can get over that new technology lust thing, then perhaps we can talk rationally about this. It turns out that if you really want to help your company’s bottom line, then what your product might really need is incremental innovation, not revolutionary innovation.

I’m not a dreamer – I know that VHS tapes, typewriters, and CRT televisions are not going to be making a sudden comeback anytime soon. The harsh, cold reality is that the technology that your product is based on is eventually going to up and die one day. A product manager’s job is to realize this and to attempt to push that day off into the future as far as he / she possibly can.

Harvard’s Dr. Mary Tripsas has looked into just how this can be done. She believes that product managers can work to proactively manage the innovation endgame.

What this means for your product is that continuing improvements to extend the life of its technology, particularly once you realize just how attractive the profit margins on the old technology are, can be a wise business decision – and not necessarily a reflection of narrow-mindedness of a product manager who is unwilling to see the future.

Making The Technology Jump – Or Not

Ultimately a product manger is responsible for the success of his / her product. When it comes to the technology that the product is build using, the product manager’s #1 goal has to be to find ways to extend the life of the product while still continuing to make the maximum amount of profit.

As a new technology arrives on the scene, the product manager needs to keep the old product alive long enough that the company can design, develop, and launch new products that contain the new technologies. The key is to finding out HOW to go about doing this.

Customers Come First

The secret to knowing how best to time your jump to a new technology is to watch your customers. Our customers come in all shapes and sizes and they all have different levels of tolerance for dealing with the risk that new technologies can bring to the table.

What you need to realize as a product manager is that your customers are all going to be moving at different speeds. Sure, some will start asking about a new technology the first time that they read about it in a trade rag; however, the vast majority of your customers are more focused on running their business than what technology your product is built on.

Generally, adopting a product that is built using new technology will require a little or a lot of investment on your customer’s part in order to be able to support the new technology. The larger the investment, the longer most of your customers will want to put off making it.

How Product Mangers Can Balance Both Worlds

It is the responsibility of the product manager to come up with ways that your customers can gradually move into the future using new technologies on their own schedule.

One way to do this is to borrow ideas from the new technology and start to incorporate them into the existing old technology product in order to extend its life. An example of this would be the Toyota Prius. It’s really a gasoline car that has a battery that it can use some of the time. The world is not quite ready for an all electric car and so by adding new technology to the type of car that we already have we will be able to get a little closer to the future.

Old products can also be used to create a bridge that will allow customers to travel to the future. These types of products combine elements of both old and new technologies. I own a great example of this type of product: a hybrid VCR / DVD player. As DVD players started to take over the market, I was hesitant to get one because of the enormous investment in children’s movies on VHS tape that I had made. However, the VHS / DVD combo player was the perfect solution for me – I could continue to play my VHS tapes while at the same time I could start to buy DVDs.

Final Thoughts

Product Managers don’t have to rush to incorporate every new technology into their products. Instead, understand your customer and learn when THEY need new technologies to be made available to them.

In the end, a product manager needs to keep a careful balance between the technologies that his / her product currently uses and the new technologies that are arriving on the scene. Your career and the ultimate success of your company depends on the success of new products, but they have to be funded by making keeping your current products successful.

Don’t think of your older products as being so-called “cash cows” that exist to be milked of their profits until they can be discarded. Instead, view them as stepping stones to future products that should be maintained and upgraded for as long as is reasonable in order to maximize profits while at the same time buying the firm time to get products that use the new technology right.

Product managers who can balance the arrive of new technology with extending the life of products that use older technology will have have found yet another way that great product managers make their product(s) fantastically successful.

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Too little time, too much to do. Does that adequately describe your product manger job? I don’t know about you, but often is the time that I’ve looked with envy at my peers who are great multitaskers and wished that I could be more like them. It turns out that I was wishing for the wrong thing – multitaskers actually do a lousy job at just about everything.

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