Take a look at this strange contraption, designed for the wealthy warrior of the 17th century. It’s an ‘axe-gonne’ (or, if you prefer 21st century spelling, ‘axe-gun’) combining the ranged combat capability of an early firearm with the ability to break heads if the fight becomes up-close and personal. It’s not just a one-off oddity: quite a few were made, in a range of designs.
It’s not a very good gun. Aiming it isn’t going to be easy, with all that weight at the front end, and reloading will be more fiddly than for a pure firearm. It’s also not a very good axe: having a gun barrel as its shaft means it’s heavier than necessary, and it won’t protect the wielder from impacts nearly as well as a good piece of ash or oak might have. Also, the first time you swing it forcefully, the musket ball will probably fly out, ending any potential usefulness as a gun.
A visit to a museum will reveal all kinds of failed attempts at combination weapons of this kind. The shield-pistol was another one: not as easy to hold as a proper shield, not as easy to aim as a pistol, and heavier than either. It was a time when blacksmiths were experimenting with the exciting new technology of gunpowder… and some of the things they tried were distinctly odd, and of limited usefulness.
Back in the 1980s, we saw something similar: manufacturers embraced the exciting new technology of low-cost microelectronics, embedding functionality into all kinds of products… and almost without exception, they were awful. Remember when you could buy a pen that had a digital clock built in? I’ve seen better timepieces, and I’ve seen better pens. Do these two items deserve to be merged into one?
Remember the calculator-ruler? It’s not a very good ruler (a bit short and far too thick; typically opaque where transparency would have been useful) and it’s not a very good calculator (having tiny, rubbery buttons and limited functionality). Just like the axe-gonne, this is a compromise… and a pretty awful one.
The reason I mention this phenomenon today is because the prototype of a new flying car has just been unveiled. ‘AeroMobil 3.0’ is a two-seater that’s started its final flight-testing programme… and it transforms into a road-legal car.
This is nothing new, of course. Glenn Curtiss built a prototype ‘Autoplane’ as early as 1917. Many others followed; Aerocar International built half a dozen back in 1940s, and their solution was quite cute… if you didn’t mind towing a trailer full of aeroplane parts. All the problem-solving, like finding a means to allow the steering to function as an aircraft control column, has long-since been figured out. Since the Aerocar (which didn’t manage to find enough buyers to enter series production) there have been numerous other contenders, such as Terrafugia, and Moller… and now AeroMobil.
The trouble with flying cars, invariably, is the same curse that dogs the axe-gonne and the calculator-ruler: they’re far from best-in-class at any of the jobs that they do. The price of AeroMobil’s latest offering has yet to be revealed, but experience has shown that it’s not going to be cheap. In fact, it’s going to cost a lot more than owning and running a nice car, and a nice aeroplane. All to own a ‘car’ that’s small, and that would be written off in any kind of road traffic collision.
“Neither fish nor fowl,” as we say. There’s a lesson here for all of us: that we might not want to try to achieve too many different things, but rather to find just one thing or a limited set of things that we want to be good at. This could be true in a product, a service… or even a whole supply chain. Will your business compete on cost, or on lead time? On convenience, or quality? Will you attract customers with your flexibility, or through high performance? Through aggressive marketing, or a reputation for ethical business?
Try to achieve too many of these individually desirable characteristics in your supply chain, and your “competitive weapon” will become an axe-gonne… and that means you’ll likely lose the fight.