Mobile is just the beginning

Product design 101: Part 2 – The automobile

A while back I wrote a post about the way product design is changing. You don’t just build, ship, hope for the best and swear you’ll do better with the next product. You iterate and improve (..or at least now you can…and therefore probably should).

Products used to be defined by their physical form. Buttons, cogs, wires and gears that you couldn’t magically replace once you discovered a better, faster or more efficient way to do things.

Today however, many products are simply defined by their software. They are also connected to the Internet. This means, almost any product can now change after it ships.

Not only can a company add new features, they can also simplify, shorten steps, clarify messages, streamline processes and update data structures.

In short, we may forgive you for releasing a product that includes the odd hoop we must jump through, but we won’t forgive you for not leveraging time, data, and technology to fix it (especially when your competition is systematically iterating to annihilate those very same hoops).

Yesterday, Tesla released the first over the air operating system upgrade for their Model S car.

Lots of interesting things to note in that last sentence…

1. Over the air = connectivity. This connectivity is unlikely to be wired broadband (although the car can be plugged-in to charge) so is therefore likely to be Wi-fi or 3G. All things being equal, the upgrade had better be lightweight and the software designed to know exactly what to do if the update stalls mid-download. (Quite a few desktop applications still don’t get that right).

Already the Tesla’s OTA upgrade seems a tad…shall we say needy?

The Model S has to be parked to perform the upgrade and Tesla says the software push should take around two hours to complete. If the Model S is plugged in, charging will pause until the update is done, and then resume immediately. There is no way for drivers to opt out of the upgrade.

As if waiting two hours wasn’t bad enough, the last sentence is particularly chilling.

There is no way for drivers to opt out of the upgrade.

Let’s be honest, how many of us own a device that’s been requesting a (non-mandatory) upgrade for months (possibly years), yet we’ve never been able to get that upgrade to work? When an upgrade is mandatory, the process (and the new OS we end up with) had better be flawless.

Which brings me to the second bit…

2. Operating system = “the thing that controls a large part of your car”. It’s one thing to brick a phone due to a bad upgrade, but OMG how horrible would it be to brick a car? Based on our track record (not specifically Tesla…I mean software in general) we may well find out how bricking a car actually works (no pun intended).

To be clear, I completely commend Tesla for implementing software upgrades. Bringing the power of iteration to things such as cars could (at least in theory) increase their long-term value, improve their performance even as they (physically) age, reduce the number of new cars we’ll have to build (sensing a bit of tension here…) so it’s nice to see a manufacturer taking this important leap.

I wish Tesla (and all of us) well in this exciting new stage in our relationship with software!

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