Companies are supposed to happily cannibalize their own business in the name of staying nimble. Today, Dyson is doing just that: The company is ceasing development on all stand-up vacuums, though it’ll still sell them for the time being. Instead, from now on, the only new clean-up gadgets the company will make are handhelds, and it’s revealing the first full-powered handheld vacuum it has ever made, the Dyson Cyclone V10, whose various models will start at $499.
This is an admission of two sorts from Dyson: Not only has the company taken floor vacuums as far as they can go after 40 years, it’s trying to move the industry standard toward something only Dyson can build. Dyson has been inching toward this goal for years, ever since it started making its own digital motors. The hint, offered by Sir James at the time, was that Dyson, by creating motors that no one else could have, could then readily move into product categories where competitors simply didn’t have as much control over their supply chains—and hence couldn’t innovate as fast. That idea first bore fruit in the Dyson hair dryer; with the V10, Dyson seems to hope that it’ll create an entirely new replacement cycle for the vacuums it has spent decades perfecting.
Dyson’s marketing machine is among the best in the world at telling a story about engineering-driven design. But behind the new V10, there’s something different: Its invention had as much to do with the psychological barriers of its users as engineering. “There’s a perception you need as much run-time as possible,” explained John Mutlow, a senior design engineer on the project. Thus creating the new machine wasn’t just about making a better vacuum—it was about creating a hand-held that gave people the certainty that they wouldn’t need an upright.
Dyson’s researchers found that one of the biggest assumptions users have is that handheld vacuums simply don’t work long enough to last for a full vacuuming session. It turns out, you can quantify this: Tell users that a hand-held vacuum works for an hour at a time. “You say the vacuum can run for 60 minutes, and people say, ‘Oh I never vacuum for 60 minutes,'” says Mutlow. Hence the V10’s battery, which provides enough power for an hour of vacuuming—a 20-minute improvement over previous models, but an entire step-change in consumer perception. The point wasn’t so much that they handhelds needed to perform better. It’s that they needed to perform well enough that a person would never imagine they needed anything else.
Of course, that dynamic of selling consumers not just what they need but what they think they need isn’t unique to Dyson. You see it in lots of big-ticket items in which consumers live with products for many years: Consumers overestimating the features they need is one reason why cars are so bloated with new buttons every year. It’s why your washing machine and dishwasher and microwave all come with thick instruction manuals detailing functions you’ll never, ever use—and that the companies themselves know you’ll never use. When people shop for gadgets that last, they seem to imagine all the ways they could use something, instead of the few ways they actually do.
There are of course performance improvements in the new vacuum, including a range of attachments better designed for carpets and hardwood floors. The former creates a tight seal so that air is forced up through the carpeting, pulling dust from it; the latter has a spongey roller that conforms to floor surfaces better. And finally, the motor inside is 40% smaller but with 200% the power density of the previous model, the V8.
In accomplishing all this by engineering its own parts, Dyson resembles no other company so much as Apple, which has always done as much of the manufacturing as it could, ranging from the machines that mill its laptop computers to, more recently, the chips it uses in its smartphones. The boring details of vertical integration have a point for any design-driven company. Dyson presumably learned just that when the company saw how other vacuum companies were eventually able to create copy-cat vacuums with transparent bins that never lost suction. But it’s much harder to go and buy the types of motors that Dyson builds for itself; if Dyson has done its job right, then none of those motors will be good enough to match its own, and Dyson will have a few more years before the copy-cats get good enough that it’ll have to reinvent its wares entirely. Again.