Open Changes

Desperate times create desperate marketers.

Such seems to be the case with Sequoia Voting Systems, a manufacturer of electronic voting machines (known among libertarians as ‘election hijacking devices’). Sequoia recently announced that they were opening the source code for their Frontier balloting systems.

A wise move, aside from the fact that it exposes Frontier as being Microsoft based. I know nobody who would trust their vote to be counted by the same people who brought you Clippy (It looks like you are trying to vote. Would you like me to cast your ballot for you?).

For reader who have resided in Tora Bora for the past decade, electronic voting machines were thrust upon the American public in a fit of panic. In the 2000 elections, a few senile seniors in Florida could not navigate paper ballots. Since the appointment of the next president was to be based on fewer votes than all the elderly dementia patients in Boca Raton, some people demanded radical changes in election processes. Congress did what they do best, and threw nearly endless stacks of cash at the problem without first taking time to understand the problem itself.

Electronic voting machines are intended to replace manual punch card machines. Many manufactures rushed products to market since the several states had tons of federal cash to toss around. The list of vendors included Sequoia, which received some unfortunate product reviews. Since votes are sacred, miscounting votes is demonic. Thus, e-voting vendors need to prove their systems are incapable of error, can not be hacked, and that your vote will be faithfully recorded and tallied.

Programmers everywhere laugh aloud.

This created a marketing problem for e-vote vendors. People buy when there is an imbalance between desire and resistance — pull verses friction. People desire iPhones, but Steve Jobs would not sell many if they cost $5,000 and exploded every time you put it to your ear. So Steve created favorable imbalance by pricing the iPhones in the $200 range (if you ignore the monthly $30 wireless data tax) and reduced iPhone explosions to mere meltdowns.

E-voting is allegedly desired, but is held in high suspicion by voters with functioning neurons. System failures and very public displays of vulnerability to hackers create a lot of friction as well as a few pitchfork-and-torch mobs heading for their county elections office. These woes tend to hamstring all e-voting vendors equally, though a few are held in more suspicion than others.

Would you trust your vote to the same people who make ATM machines?

A good marketing strategist knows that the best way to win a market is to change the rules. Attacking a competitor’s strength is a classic maneuver where the rule (“they are successful because they are good at yada yada”) itself is challenged.

The status quo in the e-voting biz was created by friction, namely the belief that e-voting machines are corruptible. So Sequoia changed the rules by opening their system source code (with limitations and in small batches) in an attempt to skate past the market friction. This puts their competitors on the defensive and forces them to follow suit or be held with more suspicion than Sequoia … a race up from the bottom. Issues remain, such as the full, final and complete release of the code, review by independent programmers who would love to find defects, and admission that using Microsoft was Sequoia’s first mistake.

Once Steve Ballmer comes to my office and fixes XP, then I might trust my vote to their operating system.

There are two marketing lessons in Sequoia’s saga. First, friction is deadly. Great marketing strategists research the barriers to adoption, removing all of them that they can. This makes products easy to buy, and those are products that fly off the shelf. Second, Sequoia sought to change the rules of the game. They saw that the rules (hiding their source code so they could claim security by obscurity) was causing every vendor to lose. So they flipped the switch, changing darkness into light and forcing their competitors to scurry like cockroaches.

Good for Sequoia, though I still won’t vote using their gear.


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