Toothbrush Tech

A story about low tech (tooth brushing) meeting high tech (electric tooth brushes) and the choices a company can make.
Written by Jeffrey S. Young, Contributor

It’s funny where you find ideas and insight.  As technology has embedded itself in everything we do, lessons come at you from all sides.  This is a story about low tech (tooth brushing) meeting high tech (electric tooth brushes) and the choices a company can make.


I recently went to my local Costco warehouse store to buy (among other things) replacement toothbrushes for our Sonicare electric toothbrush.  In the process I learned more than I ever want to know about these things, and came to the conclusion that it was also a clear example of why some consumer electronics companies are doomed to end up on the scrap heap of history.  In this case, the company heading to the refuse pile is Phillips, which bought Sonicare a few years back.


So there I am in one of the giant aisles looking at a display of Sonicare units and replacement brushes.  There are boxes stacked up above my head of the new units, and another set of teetering tiers of replacement brushes.  The packaging is fresh and colorful, sleek even, and the boxes are emblazoned with the logo for “Crest” too, which just happens to be my paste of choice.  See, the newest brushes have some integrated system for dispensing toothpaste into the brushes as you work over your teeth.  They’ve even given it a meta-marketing name full of inter-caps: IntelliClean System.


I should have known right then that I was about to be bamboozled.  But it all sounded good to me, baby boomer and member of the TV generation that I am.  I looked through the racks of replacement brushes, and saw that they were all for this “IntelliClean System.” So I grabbed a couple of boxes of the replacement brushes and headed deeper into the heart of darkness that is Costco.


We’re already on our second generation of the devices—the first ones lasted for many years, and we replaced them within the past year or so.  The new devices are smaller, easier for smaller hands to manage, and seem to work pretty well—they also look almost exactly like the replacement brush that was peeking through the artfully die cut oval window in the new Sonicare packaging.  The only drawback is that in my ham fisted tooth brushing I go through the brushes in short order. Since we bought the new brushes from Costco not so long ago, I assumed that these were going to be interoperable.  As I learned later, we have the “Elite” model.  But at the time I had no idea what the marketing name for our toothbrush system was.  I figured that since the new ones looked like the brushes I used every day, they would be compatible.


Au contraire mon frere! 


As soon as I got home, my wife (who is much better at these things) took one look at the box and said “Those won’t work with our handles.”  I argued for a few minutes, before marching into the bathroom to see for myself.  Sure enough, this new “IntelliClean System” was incompatible with the new handles we had purchased less than a year earlier.  And of course, it was also incompatible with the original handles that we had bought a decade earlier, which still work but have been relegated to the back of the bathroom cabinet.


I’m sure that there are a bevy of spreadsheet jockeys somewhere at Phillips who can tell you why it makes more financial sense to supercede a recent model with an incompatible “Newer! Better! Improved!” one and force customers to upgrade.  Obviously it makes more money for Phillips if they can get me to buy a new $100 handle every couple of years, as well as a string of replacement brushes in the interim.  Just think of the cash flow opportunities!  Worse, the quality of the original Sonicare product was such that we never had to replace it—it was a choice based on design, not disrepair. What kind of business opportunity is that?  You can almost hear the bean counters demanding that “quality be compromised” in order to find more profit in this business model.


I’ll bet there ‘s no cell in that spreadsheet for customer satisfaction.  On that front Phillips has failed, and if I ever have a choice between their products and someone else’s, I know which way I’ll go.  Of course, the Dutch company isn’t alone in making this lead footed mistake.  In the high tech world Apple was the most egregious at forcing its customers to buy new computers each time it upgraded.  Remember the Apple II, the Apple III, the Lisa, and the Mac? None was compatible with any of the others—in fact I’ve long felt that the way the company abandoned America’s schools when it dropped the Apple II was criminal.  At the same time Microsoft, for all its “lack of sensitivity”, and Intel with its “market dominance”, made sure that each new generation of its software and hardware was backwardly compatible with previous generations.


We all know who won that battle with the consumers.  Now Apple has finally seen the light with its newer generations of operating systems and made provisions for compatibility.  Maybe Phillips will get the lesson too, before it tries to squeeze the Sonicare tube too tightly and loses all its customers.


But I doubt it. 

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