The unbundling of everything

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about how large social networks and app makers are unbundling, breaking up monolithic apps into individual portions. Facebook’s been trying this forever, constantly breaking off different pieces of their service. Foursquare just did it. Google’s unbundling its unbundles.

Here’s the thing: this is the tip of the iceberg. Unbundling is the first step towards customization. Think about how we customize and personalize just about anything these days. A smartphone is, in the Android ecosystem, unbundled from its OS, and the OS is unbundled from the apps that are available to provide exactly the functionality you want and none of the things you don’t want.

Your Netflix and Hulu subscriptions effectively unbundled television. Instead of a cable package, you have the shows you want to watch, and you don’t have any obligation to pay for stuff that doesn’t interest you. The person who wants to watch Japanese psychohorror pays the exact same fee to Netflix as the person who just wants to endlessly watch Buffy reruns.

Amazon unbundled the book. First it disintermediated the bookstore (farewell, Borders), and then its Kindle Desktop Publishing program unbundled the book content from the physical book in a major way. The cloud has been unbundling the desktop and the client/server computing relationship for some time now.


All of this, however, is the tip of the iceberg, and here’s why. Unbundling is coming to the physical world, to the rest of the physical world, in the form of 3D printing. I saw a TED talk recently about how prosthetics are now being created using MRIs to make interfaces much more comfortable for people who wear them. I read recently about how one prosthesis wearer now can just print a replacement part if needed for his hand.

Much of this came to a head when I was vacuuming the kitchen the other day. My vacuum cleaner is decent enough, but it’s too heavy and it has too many features I don’t need. It’s a little too large for the size of the home I have, which is tiny, about 1400 square feet. What got me thinking about all of this was that in 10 years or less, I will probably be able to design the exact vacuum I want, with all of the features that are handy and none of the features I don’t want, and have it made at a lower cost than a regular vacuum costs today. 3D printing will enable that.

I don’t believe that there will be a 3D printer in every home, at least not one that can scale. Instead, I think it’ll look a lot like shopping online today. It’s not unreasonable to see a future in which I custom-design a vacuum on Amazon and my design is printed and dropped off (possibly by a large drone) at my door several days later. It will, however, be my unique design or variation, and chances are I’ll be able to market my design through the Amazon affiliate program (this vacuum is great for this style of house with this square footage, these pets, etc.) and earn a small bit of revenue on it, in the same way that I earn some money from my book sales. The collaborative economy will be powered by the great unbundling as we share our unique designs for everything.

This will be the great unbundling of everyday life, and either a godsend or a curse to manufacturers. Hopefully, the most forward-looking brands are thinking about this and experimenting with it today. Camelbak had better be thinking about custom-designed 3D printable water bottles. Perhaps there’s a standardized mechanism for the top, but a Camelbak in the shape of your favorite pet is not an unreasonable design to imagine. I know that Disney is already experimenting with mechanical toys that can be printed based on what you want the toy to do.

The great unbundling is coming. Are you ready for it?

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6 responses to “The unbundling of everything”

  1. The unbundling of everything is usually followed by a period of everything “bundling” again for the benefits of economy of scale. You can see this happening already with marketing firms. Small shops and consultants got a jump on the latest and greatest thing, but you then see them sucked up by the larger firms and companies to take advantage of the things big and mass offer in terms of costs and resources to pur in any direction. Look at how the tech giants started out as scrappy companies, and now are sucking up smaller competitors, to either prevent competition, harvest resources, or enter new markets without having to recreate the wheel.

    Now I think there will be a huge market for customization, because it’s now achievable at a much lower price point than ever before. But I also think you will see less custom designed from scratch products (think about the liability issues alone) as you will see base models that can be cost effectively tailored to individuals in a shorter period of time, kind of like auto makers allow you to add different packages onto a basic model car.
    I don’t think Dyson, for example, would add certain extra powerful motors to their products unless they could guarantee the product would be safe and not cause a power surge that would burn your house down, or kill your cat. Otherwise, no matter what waivers you sign, there will be a lot of money for product safety and tort lawyers to be made on whether warnings and disclaimers were sufficient, etc.

  2. What is in that pic? Did you get it from Q Branch?

    1. Funny you should ask…

  3. Interesting perspective, unbundling and sucking up smaller companies. Which is it then, or is it both and the gaps are determined ( or forced) by industry?

    1. Short answer: yes. Long answer, it’s both, because different industries are in different stages of Schumpeter’s creative destruction.

      1. Very good conversation 🙂

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