Deflation in the tech industry

Bitcoin fans, take note.

Deflation is bad.

This is not, normally, a controversial thing to say. The idea that low and stable inflation is a good thing is one of the few maxims of economics which is widely held.

Except if you like Bitcoin.

My piece last month looking at how Japan and Bitcoin are both hamstrung by their deflationary economies was meant to highlight the similarity between the two, but it also brought out a difference: whereas Japan is trying to change their economy, Bitcoin fans are trying to change economics.

By far the most common example that they cite is that of the technology sector. That's unsurprising, given people with a lot invested in Bitcoin (both figuratively and literally) tend to be pretty techie. So I'm not being unfair by pointing to Brent McCulloch's comment from last week as typical (I've cleared up the formatting a bit):

Great Article! Your arguments about deflation highlight the exact reason I never buy technology. The whole sector is deflationary!

For example, why would anyone spend their money on an iPad2 now? If they just hold onto their money a bit longer and wait for the iPad3 to come out, the same amount of money will have so much more purchasing power! Why even spend it on that iPad3 at that point, we know the iPad4 is just a year away, right? If they save their money for just 12 more months, for the iPad4, it’ll have so much more effective purchasing power.

This is why no one ever buys technology, their currency is deflating relative to technological products. Don't believe the sales figures from these tech companies, it's all smoke and mirrors I tell you! Smoke and mirrors!

Biting sarcasm.

But the thing is, deflation – or a phenomenon like it – is actually pretty evident in Apple's sales figures. This chart, via Benedict Evans, shows the cyclicality in Apple's sales:

What you're seeing is the company making an ever greater proportion of its sales in the fourth quarter. Not only is that the quarter where the most products are released (the iPad 4 was released in Q4 2012, iPhone 5 one quarter earlier but suffered crippling supply problems until Q4 2012), it's also the one where sales can't be delayed any further. No matter how sure you are that Apple's going to bring out an iPad 5 soon, if you need to buy your dad a present for Christmas, you need to buy it by Christmas.

In other words, the effect of deflation in the market for Apple's products is to bunch all of the sales into the quarter when new products are released and time-sensitive purchases are made.

But there's an even better example of deflation to pick on in the IT industry. In fact, it's one of the most famous business case studies of all time.

In 1981, the Osborne Computer Corporation launched the Osborne 1. It was, by all accounts, a great piece of kit for the time: 64k of RAM, a 5-inch screen and two whole floppy-disk drives, all for just $1,795. What's more, it came packaged in with a collection of software worth almost as much as the entire computer. Sales were fantastic: the company grew from two employees to 3,000 in just a year, and made revenue of $73m.

Then, in early 1983, the "Osborne Executive" was announced. With a 7-inch screen, almost twice the RAM, and even more bundled software, the Osborne 1 was clearly obsolete overnight, and orders fell through the floor. Despite price cuts, unsold inventory piled up, and, by 1983, Osborne declared bankruptcy. The Osborne Executive was never delivered.

That story has come to be known as the Osborne Effect, illustrating to business leaders worldwide the perils of pre-announcing replacements to their own products. But it's also a very literal demonstration of the effects of deflation.

What Osborne announced was a rapid deflation in the cost of an Osborne computer. "Soon," customers were told, "you will be able to get vastly more computer for your money." And customers responded in the only sensible way: they stopped buying Osborne 1s. Starved of cash-flow, the company couldn't even live long enough to release the product which they had touted, and so everyone was worse off.

Deflation does hit the tech sector. Apple may not be going bankrupt as people wait til the iPad 5, but it's losing more and more sales in the early quarters of each year; and other companies have suffered exactly that fate. Bitcoin fans, take note: your favourite counterexample is my favourite example.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.