Three great machines and innovation limitation

threemachines.jpgI’ve owned only three great machines – three devices built so well that they not only lasted more than a decade, but served their purposes so well that I never replaced them with newer models. And by my count, I spent more time interacting with these products than many of the other machines I owned combined.

All three are examples of complete design: they satisfy my needs, work simply, and are perfectly reliable. They’re not stylistic gems, but their low key aesthetics fit their function: work without getting in the way. They are better than newer models in many ways, including the fact that innovation and change would likely eliminate what I like so much about these products.

Yet from a business standpoint, these three have some problems. They perfectly captured my needs on the first try, which killed any motivation for upgrading.

Goldstar Microwave: purchased 1992

My wife bought this little guy for her dorm room at CMU. It has survived 4 moves (2 in Pittsburgh, 2 in Seattle) and dozens of parties. It has one of those spinning trays, and can fit a large plate full of food if you know the magic angle of entry. It’s the only microwave oven we’ve ever owned.

Hewlett Packard 4L Printer: purchased 1994

This quiet tiny laserprinter has only required a new toner cartridge every few months. Otherwise I’ve never opened the case or read the manual. It’s outlasted the half dozen or so computers I’ve purchased, and still sits comfortably in the same location for more than a decade.

Panasonic Bread Machine, SD-BT56: purchased 1994

In the early 90s bread machines were trendy yuppie fare. No one who knew me thought I’d make bread, much less on the same machine for years to come. No single part has been replaced and I’ve never misprogrammed the timer because it’s so simple. I’ve made bagels, pizza, Pierogi / Piroshki, and countless varieties of bread. Nothing beats waking up in the morning to the smell of a fresh loaf waiting in the kitchen.

The limits of innovation

In the years since these purchases many advancements and innovations in each product line have developed – but I haven’t cared. Even if I did, the odds that the designers combined all the features in a simple, reliable, charming way is slim. These devices served a need so well, I didn’t bother to check in again with what the market was doing.

For me, with these products, innovation is low on the list of requirements. I don’t want for features or long for breakthroughs. I just want these guys to continue to serve me in the quiet, simple, stoic way that they do. There is a limit to the value of product innovation: for many things the highest consumer goal is what I’ve described: do what I need done and do it well. Which is something obtainable in many products (including software and technology) without any major innovations at all.

What are your great machines?

So what great machines have you used or owned in your life? What made you finally leave them behind? Or if you still use them, what’s held you back from replacing them?

18 Responses to “Three great machines and innovation limitation”

  1. Mark Denovich

    I thought about this one a bit. I’ve always tried to make an extra effort to find things that were built to last. Sadly even with all the toys I have, there aren’t many that make the cut.

    1971 Millermatic 35S Mig welder. Built like a tank, smoother arc than most new machines, and dead simple to use. (Although with copper prices so high, it might be worth more as scrap.)
    A few Starrett micrometers (although the new beater micrometers I bought turned out to be just as accurate.)

    However, I realized that there is an entire category of amazingly durable technology I was forgetting: Firearms.

    My new .45 hardly differs from the original 1911 design, and is considered by many to still be the gold standard of semi-auto handgun design.

    All of the sporting arms I inheireted from my father are just as good as they were when purchased (decades ago) and are in many cases arguably better than newer designs. I have a Winchester model 12 that’s seen north of one hundred thousand rounds and it might even be better than it was when new. This one of the reasons I have such a strong sentimental attachment to them. Like Patek Philippe’s tag line: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”

  2. Matt

    I’ve owned the HP 4L printer in the past too, and I regret getting rid of it in a fit of pique trying to unclutter the house during a move. That thing was unstoppable.

    Of course, as much as you like the 4L, it’s very possible that HP hated it. The problem: it was too durable.

    I don’t know if the story is apochryphal, but I’ve heard it said that the 4 series of printers were so reliable that they were seen as a threat to the followon products that HP produced. People who owned them never upgraded (like you, Scott!) Subsequent designs were ordered to be made with thinner, plastic parts and cheaper electronic components. A printer that lasts forever is a printer-vendor’s worst nightmare. There should be a way of rewarding companies for creating simple, durable objects, you know?

  3. Scott (admin)

    Mark: Weapons make for great examples of durable design. Since historically their owners depended on them for survival, there are many examples of swords and other weapons of incredibly fine craftsmanship (I wrote about the design of katanas awhile ago).

    For some reason the aesthetic of rifles gets me going more than handguns – I’m not really a gun person, never fired a single round, but the long lines of rifles seems more elegant and noble than handguns do.

  4. Scott (admin)

    Matt: Agreed – I’m sure in the modern age there are good reasons for so few great machines. For any corporation, products are viewed as lines of income with curves of growth and decay. The ideal product portfolio has lots of growth, but progressively replacable growth. Any product that’s highly crafted enough to deeply satisfy makes a future trend line harder to obtain.

    It’s no great mystery why there are so many mediocre products – it’s not that manufacturers (or software developers) aren’t capable of making better things, it’s that the economics doesn’t reward them for doing so. You have to be a dedicated craftsman to give away profit in favor of making something that satisifies your own creative ideals for how high quality things should be. Apple, BMW & B&O are examples of companies with higher standards, but they charge a premium for the things they make.

    Of course in the printer case, I wonder why the Gillete razor model (give away the razors, profit on the blades) doesn’t work. Does HP profit much from the toner cartridges? I don’t know.

  5. Andreas Scherer

    The most durable electronic device I’ve used for years was the Cherry G80-1000 keyboard (German layout; 1996). It survived several computers and worked without the slightest glitch till the end, but I had to abandon it last year, because my latest notebook only has USB, but no PS/2, let alone SUB-D connectors (and I couldn’t stand the idea to buy a second adaptor at the price of a new keyboard). I never cared for no “Windows key” and such, and the Cherry just had that decisive “hack”. The most durable electric device I’m using on a regular, i.e. weekly, basis, is my trusted Rowenta flat-iron from 1994 (without any steam-generating unit).

    Apart from electr(on)ics, I’m actively using two Canon A1 analog camera bodies (well, they claim they have lots of electronics inside) with Fuji chemical film for color slides since 1987 without any problems, although I am aware of the limitations this presents in the digital age (using an incompatible scanner in a virtual machine is no fun!). Even older, but no less durable, is an aluminum attaché case by Rimowa (about 1982), plus two matching travelling boxes. The attaché has one major dent and its locks were (easily) replaced, but otherwise it’s a really cool transport for a 15.4″ notebook of 2005. The oldest working item in my possession is a Doxa pocket watch, about 80 years of age; only the front glass was replaced some years ago. The Doxa even “survived” two other (mechanical) wrist-watches; I never owned a digital watch (apart from all the little timing devices that surround us these days, inside and outside of our computers).

  6. Scott (admin)

    Speaking of cameras, one near runner-up for me is my Canon Powershot Camera. It doesn’t qualify as I bought a newer model months ago (SD-550) – however the design is 90% the same and my reasons for the purchase were similiar: form factor, form factor, form factor. They nailed my primary critiera without screwing up any of the others. It’s a high quality, super-portable, solidly reliable device, that I entirely trust.

  7. zaxl

    Pencil Pilot H-1010B, the Shaker, 15 years in service.

  8. Konrad West

    A Casio calculator my mum got me in grade 7. Still works to this day, and I haven’t even replaced the battery (though maybe that’s because I never did my maths homework).

  9. Mark Denovich

    re: cameras

    I think until the advent of digital technology, cameras were a great example of durable technology. The Canon A1 (circa 1982?) I have is nearly indestructable, and is a joy to use. Digital technology finally seems to be maturing, such that cameras purchased today won’t be obsolete in 2-3year time span. I’ve been very happy with my Nikon D50 (DSLR). Good feel, well crafted (although nothing like the Canon A1.) It is so good that I doubt I’ll find a compelling reason to upgrade any time soon.

    re: firearms

    I’m a limited fan of handguns… my father never owned any. They are more obviously weapons, when compared with my collection of sporting shotguns and rifles. My father’s take was that they were good for killing people and not much else. The one I got recently was my first (unless you count an olympic match air pistol.) I think my dad was mostly right, but if used in competition ( pistols are a ton of fun. Think video games with real adrenaline. BTW: if you ever want to shoot, and are in Pittsburgh look me up… it’s almost like I run a shooting outreach program for geeks. When Stellman was in town we discovered he’s a natural with pistols (embarrassingly so… much better than me.)

  10. Pablo

    Hi Scott,

    Excellent article… word after word can describe my thoughts. What we want are reliable and functional devices (and computer programs, and cars and…) but we (and the market) are obsessed with innovation and stupidiness. Why? Just to show our friends how cool we are?. I can’t think of any other reason.

    Here in Spain one interesting example is the mobile phone. I’ve only owned 2 mobile phones in 6 years (because they stole me the first one) but you can easily find people owning half a dozen phones in 3 years… Camera? MP3? GPS? Come on, it’s a mobile phone!

    It’s just the same with cars… Why do you show me your GPS, your MP3 player, your superb speakers?.

    I can’t really understand why we are so obsessed with innovation, especially when it provides features that don’t make any sense for that particular device.

    I think the moral of the story is similar to software development… a traditional year-after-year slightly refined program/device can be excellent but a program/device which is designed almost from scratch every year and is to be released at soon as possible is just an experiment…

  11. Deb

    re: xazl’s comment about the Shaker

    I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read that one. Mine is a blue Pentel P207. I’ve been using the same one since I started university in 1991. It was with me in every one of my finals. All of the labelling has long since worn off…I think I’m gonna end up being buried with it.

  12. Steve Morris

    I confess I too have an HP4L. It was once an office printer for a manager but was turfed out as being too old and slow. I rescued it and adopted it. Since then, the only complaint I have to make about it is that the toners aren’t so easy to get these days but I guess that’s the price of hanging on to old technology.

    Over the time, it’s gone from being connected to a 386 running windows 3.1 to having an external print server to the end of the parallel port so I can print using my wireless network using Vista.

    I’ve got a HP1300 at work now and that is quite a workhorse too for me, but I’ve seen others break, and it doesn’t feel quite as robust.

    it’s a shame the HP4L doesn’t have a page counter…

  13. Ron Beckett

    Gaaah! We’ve had a power failure and when the power came back on, the only item to not come back to life is my old HP4L I’ve had since new. It appears dead! The lights flash on briefly after plugging in the power cable but that’s it. It looks like I’ll have to search for one on eVilBay.

  14. Scott

    Update: I replace the HP printer about a year ago with a newer model. My primary motivation was to get duplex printing. The old guy still worked just fine.

  15. eva

    BRAUN Hairdryer. I’ve had it since 1995 and still going strong. I use it every day in winter, and I have long hair!

    I haven’t replaced it because there is no need. Press a button, hot air is blown, my hair gets dry. What else could I want?



  1. What are your great machines?…

    Scott Berkun asks What are your great machines? Here are the three machines I thought of when I finished Scotts post: Apple LaserWriter 4/600 PS Scott lists his HP 4L printer. I have an Apple LaserWriter 4/600 PS from 1995…

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