I've recently come across wardley mapping, a technique for visualizing and modeling business strategy. There's one piece of it that has stuck in my mind: a theory of the evolution of technological innovations. The essence is that technologies transition between 4 stages as they become more mature and better understood by the world.
It all starts with inventions: totally unique ideas and prototypes by a single person. Think, Da Vinci scribbling about ornithopters. Inventions aren't useful all on their own, but they are fundamental to technical progress.
If someone decides to go and implement an invention to solve a particular problem, it becomes a bespoke solution. This is more like the first couple airplanes or work done by software consultancy firms. Bespoke solutions can be very useful for the small number of people for whom they are made, but seldom scale beyond that context.
the world's first commercial passenger plane
When a technology gets understood and refined to the point where it can be produced en masse for many clients, it becomes a product. These become widespread in our daily lives: the Model T, Boing 777's, SaaS companies, etc. Products aren't cheap in the grand scheme of things, but they tend to be much cheaper than doing your own research and building your own solution.
And finally, once a technology gets so well understood that many suppliers can produce roughly equivalent versions of it quite easily, the price falls and it become a commodity. Commodities are the "Amazon Basics" of the world: cheap silverware, computer mice, 2x4's, barrels of oil, etc. Innovations can still happen within commodities but they tend to be centered around efficient production rather than design.
So that's the framework! Inventions become bespoke solutions, bespoke solutions become products, products become commodities. Some thoughts I have about this:
There's a pattern in pricing here: Commodities are cheaper than products, products are cheaper than bespoke, and research is the most expensive. It tends to come from places that have lots of money: universities, government-funded institutions à la CERN, and large companies like Microsoft Research.
Product and commodity seem more like two ends of a spectrum than fixed categories. The larger the distribution and more well-understood the price, the more an item feels like a commodity over a product.
You can have commodities and products for the same "class" of item. Take coffee: specialty coffee is sold at a premium with the promise of unique innovations (i.e. fun flavors) compared to commodity coffee sold on a global marketplace at a more standardized price.
Do these catergories apply to people too? A job often feels like being turned into a commodity. Need a software engineer with three years of experience? Great here's five. Boutique university degrees are more like products: Stanford grads cost more to hire than the same major from a state school. Maybe experts who consult for high hourly rates are the bespoke equivalent?
While there are often ads for products, no one has direct monitary incentives to tell you to use a commodity. Consider narrow bamboo poles. Particularly in areas with bamboo forests, these are dirt cheap. If you're running a scaffolding company, you might get lots of advertisements for people who produce various technologically advanced materials: steel poles, new ceramics, etc. But what if bamboo poles are actually the best suited to your use case, especially taking into account their price? No one is going to send you a flyer recommending them! I guess the conclusion is: worry about selection bias when it comes to ads and do your own research into commodities. This seems extra relevant in a software world swimming with SaaS products and their subsequent marketing.
That's all for now, hope this can be a useful framework for you. Thanks for stopping by!