Hackable experiences and the Hacker Ethic

The US has been labeled "in love with the hacker ethic" with respect to programming education; I submit we are not enough in love with hacking at all.

Hacking a product or an experience is often about mere expandability, portability, compatibility,

Power Macintosh G3 desktopImage via Wikipedia

or simple utility that the original product did not provide, by design or flaw. Overclocking the CPU on my Power Mac G3 from 266Mhz to 300Mhz was pretty easy in 2000; I did it in 2 minutes, and I never looked back. Apple would have liked to charge me about $500 more for the machine when I bought it. There's an incentive to keep people from doing it- protecting an existing revenue stream. It's relatively inexpensive to enforce such a protection because the vast majority of people will never risk voiding their warranty.

But what's at the other end of the spectrum? Hackable Experiences move and are mutable after the point of purchase. Hackable experiences, to my mind, produce long-term benefits for their proprietors, including but not limited to:

  • Product enhancements available to all for free- even if the original producer didn't think of it or couldn't pull it off (legal reasons are a common form of the latter)
  • increased longevity for the product
  • Affinity and evangelism a bout your product offline
  • Online WOM activity for the brand and product in a hyperconnected community
  • Support add-ons, add-ins, external processes and have an open relationship with their users

One of the objectives of brand advertising is to attract people who are not just fans sbut also potential employees. Hackable experiences create similar feelings: the kids in this iPhone "jailbreaking" collective want to work for apple when they get out of school. Apple made a device they loved, and they are showing their love by making it better, or at least better for them. Instead of turning your back, creating an arms race, why not attract these super-smart, hyper-motivated engineers to work for you? According to the WJ article one of them took an internship with Google.

After-market modifications are valuable, for the company as well as the user. Legally a customer usually owns the product (see the first sale doctrine) and can dispose of it as he wishes. But many manufacturers impose non-modification as a condition of warranty coverage. Overclocking my Power Mac voided the warranty. However, if the after-market mod is clear, but the business impact is less clear: doesn't interaction with and affinity for a product after the sale have value?

Twitter, for example, would hardly be anywhere without

I believe in my gut in a long term economic model of hackable experiences, for now it's just a theory. But may we ask, in an age of open APIs and lots of people with free time, what is the manufacturer’s obligation to protect or enable such activity? Some products are inherently open to this, likeBugLabs, but I think that’s going to be the exception that proves the rule. Most manufacturers feel no obligation to support hacking, with Apple and its bricking iPhones as the prime example. Yet I submit that no one is in a better position to know the product, and how to integrate it with the world, than the manufacturer.

You gave your trademark to the world, you finally let go of your corporate image so that people could blog about you. A call to Brands: take it one step further. Make it a hackable experience.

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