Monday, September 08, 2008

In Defense of the Xtracycle Standard

I've gotten a few comments lately on my unapologetic critique of the Kona Ute for not adhering to the Xtracycle rack standard. I have resisted responding in comments individually and thought I would respond collectively to the arguments presented.

Argument #1 -- the Kona Ute is less of a bike and is therefore different.
The argument goes like this... the Kona Ute hauls less, carries less, costs less, weighs less and is really intended for something entirely different. And less. Such as hauling one kid versus two, or is for "small adults" as one person wrote, or is really a commuter or light tourer.
Response:
This sounds like a real stretch to me. Starting with the name... the Ute, short of course for Utility. Which sounds to me like a utility bike which is for carrying stuff. I have a hard time believing that this bike was intending for commuting since even though it may be marginally lighter, it is well overkill for commuting and not anyone's definition of maneuverable.

And, the notion of "small adults" is strange considering that the bike only comes in one frame size.
Further, I think the direction that Kona is taking this also speaks volumes about intended use -- the new saddle bags appear to be about twice as big as the original, which would indicate that Kona intends for this to be used to carry more and do more, not less.
Argument #2 -- The Kona Ute is the same, but cheaper.

No getting around this. The Kona Ute is cheaper than a Big Dummy.

That said, the Kona Ute is NOT cheaper than an Xtracycle equipped bike. For this argument to really hold water, the Kona would need to be cheaper all the way around, so that their competing standard really would have a chance of taking root. As it is, it is just competitively priced among all the cargo bikes.

Which means, IMHO, that Kona did the math on this and believes that they can sell enough of these through their distribution channel to gain share. Which I would believe is probably a reasonable argument... how many shops sell Konas versus Xtras? And how many consumers look at pricetag first? Or, look at the fact that the bike is complete, not a kit? Probably quite a few.

And this takes me back to my original argument -- if this is about $$$ (and since Kona is a successful, viable company I would expect it to be about this at least at some level, no shame in this), why not find ways to make money in this market that don't wreck or divert the emerging standard?

Here is why I care about the Xtra standard:

As a bicycle consumer, I think I am much better off with a standard. Consider how many standards are on a bike today... wheel sizes, hub spacing, bar and seatpost diameters, thread sizes, etc etc etc. Too many to list.
In general, these standards make my life much better. In some cases, the standards make it worse, as might be said of Shimano... the Microsoft of the bike world. When I get locked into a standard, with few alternatives, and forced to pay "upgrade" charges or compatibility charges, then standards become a bad word. Think of having to buy Shimano compatible drivetrain components ... the right shifters for the right cassette, for instance. This annoys me, and has probably annoyed many people over the years, especially those who work on their own bikes.

The great thing about the cargo bike / longtail market is that the market is still immature. The "standards" for cargo bikes / longtails are still emerging. At the center of this market is Xtracycle which seems to me, as an outsider, to be a righteous group of individuals. People who would like nothing better than to ignite a bicycle revolution. Their choice of mediums (a company) is transparent... they do not profess otherwise. Which to me is exactly the type of people that you want involved when a market is just forming.

This type of benevolent market power means I get more choice faster ... more kickstands, more bicycle sound systems, more kid carriers, and so forth. Xtracycle has kicked off a flurry of aftermarket equipment that is just getting started. When Kona comes in and muddies it up, it just serves to discourage and delay the innovation around the standard. The Kona model seems much more like the traditional bike business -- power a standard through using your distribution channel, bundle it into your product, and force them to "pay" later. Perhaps I have completely misread the Xtracycle crew, but this does not seem like their goal.

As I've been thinking about this, the question I keep coming back to is -- if standards never got broken, innovation would never happen. And the answer I have for this is that innovation is great. If Kona were to IMPROVE the idea, rather than just copy it, I'd be much more impressed. For example, the Yuba Mundo doesn't use the Xtracycle standard either. But then again, the Mundo can carry 400 lbs. They broke the standard to improve it. Nothing I've seen yet from Kona does anything substantial to improve it, and it seems to me that the have tried to plunk their bike right down in the middle of the cargo bike market and soak up share from Xtracycle.

As an MBA I'd probably have given them this same advice. As a consumer, I think it is a bummer.
PS. There are rumors that Xtracycle's licensing charges are prohibitive. I've asked both Xtracycle and Surly to comment on this and their response so far is basically... this is absurd.
If this is the case, it would seem truly out of character. If anyone has any info on this, I'd be very interested to know.