Enclosed Ecosystems

There’s been some raging

In all honesty, it’s probably justified. Does the bike world need another half baked ‘standard’? Probably not, and it is half baked because it sits between two existing standards. I said my bit, hard not to because one only hopes that the people, in this case at Trek, come out of their rarified atmosphere and listen to what their buying market is trying to tell them – please fuck off with your new unwanted standard.

Doing what I do, I kept an eye on the comments, always good for a laugh or some thought provocation. Deep down in it there were some interesting comparisons to the automotive world that went along the lines of, we like our cars to be as up to date and advanced as possible but not our bikes. It’s an interesting point and had me stop dead and have a think, after all, it’s a valid point.

The bike industry is an interesting one for several reasons. First, it’s one in which the components sector has for a long time wagged the tail of the bike builders. By that I mean unlike the auto industry, where the car makers tell the component suppliers what they want, in the bike industry, the component suppliers drive what the frame/bike makers make. Arse backwards.

Second and again unlike the auto world, the cycling consumer expects, hands down, that every part made will/should fit their existing bike and when it doesn’t, there is the beating of chest and gnashing of teeth en masse, regardless of how absurd the expectation; even I have been known to do this. Again, arse backwards – after all I don’t expect that something made by Toyota is going to strap itself to a BMW.

So when I re-looked at this new hub standard Trek is looking to push out and thought about the auto sector, I began to see a different picture evolving.

Auto makers work in what can be defined as ‘enclosed ecosystems’. When they design a car, it’s generally done from the ground up and can include new or repurposed proprietary parts or systems. They will have a parts bin to play with but in general that parts bin is mostly exclusive to the brand in question. As such, the buyer of said new car does not expect he’ll hop over to shop X to buy a ‘new’ part by some other company to strap to the car, they naturally realise that they either have to go to the dealer, or after a while, buy an aftermarket replacement part which while being ‘aftermarket’ is still made specifically for the car they have.

When it comes to our cars, or motorcycles, or any other such item, we expect, and accept, that each exists in its own enclosed ecosystem.

When re-looking at the above mentioned article, I am beginning to wonder if we are starting to see the same thing happen in the bike industry?

Is it still acceptable for the consumer to think that the bicycle that they buy from Trek, Cannondale, whoever, should be what we can acceptably term ‘open source’? Considering the budgets they spend in developing their new designs, it no longer seems reasonable that they should be limited by the available range of ‘open source’ components, especially where they are 1. trying to gain a design advantage over their rivals, 2. are wanting to maximise how and what they design and 3. keep the consumer in their product brand loop. In this scenario, it seems totally acceptable that each player could well, and probably will, end up designing certain components that work with their system alone. It makes more than a little sense on a myriad of fronts when you think about it.

When I was designing and specifying for Mountain Cycle before its collapse, I realised that in order to have the frames we are selling work to their optimum, we needed to have control over various aspects such as the suspension, front and back. This lead to us working up what we termed a ‘rolling chassis’ rather than a frame set. In other words, we’d sell frame, fork, cranks and headset as a ‘set’ to ensure that what we built performed in the manner we designed for. While not a true closed eco system, it did represent the thinking that there were too many variables available that could drastically affect the performance of our frame designs.

For the majority of end consumers out there, this really will not be a big deal. Generally many riders, especially those ‘newish’ to the sport of cycling, will buy a bike, ride it into the ground and then replace it with the newer thing. The upgrade or swap out path is not really huge issue, especially when you think that most of the parts strapped to a modern bike are pretty bloody good these days. It’s only the smaller segment of the market, the pedants, gear heads, tech boys/girls etc., those that want the exotica or something special, where cross platform compatibility becomes an issue. One has to ask if the big players are even considering this end of the market where they want to point their efforts… I’d say probably not.

I don’t foresee the death of ‘aftermarket’ in the bike industry. What I do see though is a narrowing at the big brand level, where the ‘upgrade path’ options diminish due to the closed nature of the product ecosystem unique to each brand (how long was it before someone made aftermarket Lefty hubs?). When you buy a Trek, you are a Trek owner, much the same as if you bought a VW – you end up being part of their product loop ecosystem and stay in it as long as you have the Trek bike.

It’ll be the independent, smaller brands without the budget or reach to develop closed systems that will ultimately keep the components sector alive but over time I think the available options, depending on what they are, may become smaller or more expensive as component makers strive to make their products more cross compatible (read hubs and cranks that allow for all size variations), adding to the complexity, investment and production costs.

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