business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Three recent stories grabbed my attention, reinforcing the degree to which change is inevitable...

To begin with, there was the announcement yesterday by Volvo that, as the New York Times writes, it will become "the first mainstream automaker to sound the death knell of the internal combustion engine, saying that all the models it introduces starting in 2019 will be either hybrids or powered solely by batteries."

It is, the Times writes, "the boldest commitment by any major car company to technologies that currently represent a small share of the total vehicle market but are increasingly viewed as essential to combating climate change and urban pollution." While many carmakers have offered hybrids and battery-powered cars, low gas prices in the US have meant that automakers here have continued to push SUVs and pickup trucks. And yet, the Times, suggests, "Volvo’s move may be the latest sign that the era of the gas guzzler is slowly coming to an end ... by focusing on electrification, Volvo can concentrate its limited research and development resources on new technologies rather than continuing to invest in fuel-powered motors that may become obsolete."

In other words, embracing change, and trying to turn it into a competitive advantage.

I was reminded of the GMDC Retail Tomorrow technology conference on which I reported earlier this year, where Marc Tarpenning, one of the co-founders of Tesla, said that as his company developed its technology, they assumed that they'd face enormous competition from car companies that would under-price them. "We never discussed the possibility that the other car companies wouldn't do anything to compete with us," he said. But, of course, that's exactly what happened.

Though maybe now the tide is shifting.

And then, there was the story in the Washington Post about how Sony Music - almost thirty years after it decided to stop producing vinyl records - has announced that it once again will produce them.

Despite the fact that there have been numerous alternative formats over the years - the cassette, compact disc, digital MP3 and streaming - vinyl continued to have niche appeal, and the Post writes that lately sales have been skyrocketing.

In 2014, more than 9.2 million records were sold. In 2015, the number grew to almost 12 million. And there even was a week last year in the UK when vinyl sales eclipsed digital music downloads.

The niche, it seems, has gotten larger: "Vinyl has always offered a more intimate experience," the Post writes. "The large format feels more substantial and turns the design of the cover and the inserts into satisfying artworks in their own right in a way that a CD never could. There’s something wonderfully interactive about putting on a record, listening to a side, and then flipping it over to hear the other side. It makes the listening experience something in which you are constantly physically and emotionally involved. It’s social, and fun, a far cry from the passive aural experience of CDs or digital."

There was, however, one problem: "Most record presses closed down when it seemed vinyl was a commercial goner. NPR reported that only about 16 operating presses remain in the United States, most of which are overloaded with demand." And so Sony will have to use a Japan vinyl pressing plant to make its new records.

But in this case, the change changed back.

Finally, Salon reports that after four decades, National Public Radio (NPR) no longer will offer "Car Talk," the Boston-based radio show in which brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi offered advice and guidance - leavened with hoary jokes and good humor - about car repairs.

The thing is, the show has been in repeats since 2012, when the brothers retired, saying they wanted to “smell the cappuccino.” Two years after that, Tom Magliozzi passed away from complications related to Alzheimer's disease.

Even in repeats, I must say that "Car Talk" was a reassuring presence, and the brothers - who sometimes referred to themselves as Click and Clack - remained an entertaining fixture on my radio dial, even though I know little about cars and would never even try to repair one on my own.

But I guess that NPR figured that five years of repeats was enough, that it was time to stop living in the past and begin devoting that air time to the future. Change had to be embraced.

Which I understand. Though I'll miss "Car Talk."

It's all an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: