Imagine you're the CEO of a company that makes an award-winning Buffalo Chicken sauce.
You're about to walk into a grocery store one day and happen to bump into a customer exiting the store, carrying a bottle of your sauce.
"Hello, there," you say to the customer with a huge smile on your face. "I'm the CEO of the company that makes that award-winning Buffalo Chicken sauce you're holding, and I just wanted to thank you for your support of our business. I hope you enjoy your chicken!"
The customer smiles and says, "Why that's very kind of you, thank you! I love this sauce, and I buy it regularly. But... I don't eat chicken. I use it on my pork chops."
"WHAT?!? But that's Buffalo CHICKEN sauce... it says so right on the bottle. You can't use it on pork. That's just not how we want you to use it."
"I can use it on pork, and I do," replies the customer, obviously annoyed. "I paid for this sauce, and how I use it once it's mine is none of your concern. Good day!"
You are horrified. You pull out your cellphone and call your Head of Food Innovation.
"Barbara, it's me. I just discovered a customer who buys our CHICKEN sauce to use on PORK! Yes, that's right... that's what I told him, but he wouldn't listen to me. So here's what I'm thinking... can we introduce an enzyme into our sauce that has no effect on chicken but automatically disintegrates any other food it touches? Okay, let's get working on that..."
This story is obviously made up.
After all, even if such an enzyme existed, why would you want to restrict a customer who purchases your product from using it in a way that best meets their needs?
It's utterly ridiculous, right?
Apparently, not everyone would agree with that sentiment.
The NordicTrack x32i Incline Trainer is a $5,000 treadmill that features a 32-inch HD screen.
But don't get any ideas about binging your favourite Netflix series or learning something new from MasterClass while you're exercising on the NordicTrack x32i Incline Trainer.
As reported by ArsTechnica, "NordicTrack’s hardware pushes people to subscribe to exercise software operated by iFit, its parent company, and doesn’t let you watch videos from other apps or external sources." Although a 30-Day iFIT Family Membership is included with the purchase of the Treadmill, memberships auto-renew at a cost of $42 per month, plus tax.
Some purchasers weren't happy about this restriction. Fortunately, they discovered a hack that allowed them to use their treadmills the way they wanted to use them.
You see, in order to allow customer service teams to remotely access customers' treadmills for troubleshooting purposes, NordicTrack implemented a software "cheat code" into the machine: if you tapped the touchscreen 10 times, waited seven seconds, then tapped 10 more times, you "unlocked" the machine and gained access to the underlying Android operating system... at which point, a reasonably computer-savvy user could install whatever Android programs they liked.
NordicTrack would clearly prefer that people who purchase the x32i subscribe to their iFit programming because that's an incremental $500 a year of revenue for the company, in perpetuity. Companies that make stuff are fine, but companies that generate monthly recurring revenue tend to earn much higher valuations.
But instead of trying to persuade customers on the merits of iFit, they decided to eliminate a user's ability to install any other software they might like to use while exercising. How? They forced an update to the software that eliminated the cheat code.
Essentially, they added an enzyme into the sauce: use the product the way we want you to use it, or don't use it at all.
It doesn't take much effort to imagine how x32i customers, many of whom purchased the machine precisely because they knew it could be modified to suit their individual fitness needs, felt about this "upgrade".
NordicTrack claims they eliminated the cheat code for safety reasons -- the machine has moving parts! -- but that's clearly a line crafted by the public relations team. After all, if the company knew people were hacking their machines to make better use of the screens and the update's purpose wasn't to eliminate choice and force incremental revenue, they could have eliminated the cheat code but simultaneously granted customers the ability to download popular media applications (like Netflix, MasterClass, Udemy, and such) to their treadmills. That would achieve the stated safety objective and keep x32i customers happy.
They didn't do that. Because this isn't about safety, it's about control.
Is NordicTrack within their legal rights to restrict users from using the screens they purchased for anything other than iFit classes? Maybe. After all, while the tap-wait-tap hack was widely known, it wasn't actually publicized by the company and wasn't intended for customer use.
But that isn't any consolation for customers who purchased the x32i because they knew they could hack that large screen to watch the content they wanted to watch while exercising. Imagine how those customers now feel about their purchase... and the NordicTrack brand?
Probably the same way a Buffalo Chicken sauce customer would feel if they suddenly discovered their pork chops had disintegrated.
Just because you can restrict a customer from doing something with the product they've purchased, it doesn't mean you should.