Tool Wars

Published: September 3, 2006. Filed under: Meta, Misc.

A long time ago, in a land far away, there lived people who were called “carpenters”, and their jobs consisted, in part, of the following tasks:

Now, the last one was particularly problematic, because it usually involved pounding a small metal connector — called a “nail” — through one of the pieces of wood and into another. Many carpenters working in small shops had to resort to the terribly painful method of just banging the nails with the palms of their hands. The carpenters who worked at these shops typically had to retire early due to “repetitive slapping disorder”, the medical term for the injuries they sustained from slapping their hands against the nails over and over.

Larger, wealthier carpentry shops realized that the pension and health plans of their carpenters were getting to be a significant expense, so they invested in better ways to pound nails and eventually came up with The Gauntlet, a huge, thick metal glove that protected the carpenter’s hand as he pounded away on the nail. Unfortunately, The Gauntlet tended to be pretty heavy — on average, it weighed about fifteen pounds — so the productivity of the individual carpenters decreased. Their arms would get tired much more quickly, and they’d have to take more frequent breaks to recuperate.

There was an advantage to The Gauntlet, though: it could be made modular, so it could handle other types of fasteners besides nails. For example, extensions on the ends of the fingers could be used to turn different kinds of screws, and the fingertips could also be angled in ways that were convenient for gripping various types of nuts and bolts. Because it solved the problem of RSD and could adapt to other uses, The Gauntlet was generally the tool of choice in all the big “enterprise carpentry” shops.

Then one day The Hammer came on the scene.

It had been developed by a young Dutch carpenter who worked at a small shop in Seattle. In order to compete in the crowded Seattle carpentry market, his shop needed to develop a serious advantage, and The Hammer was that advantage. They made headlines all around the carpentry world by having their four-man team build an entire house in just a few weeks. If they’d used Gauntlets it would have taken six months — swinging a heavy metal glove over and over again, in the cool, rainy Seattle climate, isn’t something you can keep up for extended periods of time, so you have to stop and rest pretty often.

The Dutch carpenter and his colleagues started a national tour where they showed videos of themselves using The Hammer to build that house, and the audiences — mostly carpenters from smaller companies, but with a few big corporate carpentry types among them — were blown away.

Soon The Hammer was a worldwide carpentry sensation. Notable carpenters started writing on their blogs about how they were “giving The Hammer a try on a little personal project”. A well-known carpenter, author of five books on Enterprise Gauntlet Pounding Patterns, became an outspoken convert, and wrote a new book: “From Gauntlet to Hammer”.

But, really, The Hammer wasn’t a particularly new idea. Things that were recognizable as ancestors of The Hammer had been around for years but had never caught on, because The Gauntlet was firmly entrenched in the minds of carpenters everywhere. Components similar to the parts which made up The Hammer — handles, steel heads, and so forth — were well known, but The Hammer was the first product to wrap them all up into a single, shiny, ruthlessly marketed package.

A few people expressed an interest in learning about The Hammer’s components, and other things that could be made with them, and several good books on the subject appeared. One of the most famous was “Who’s Poignant Guide to Tools”, which featured cartoon marmosets making running jokes throughout the text. But most of the people who bought these books were former Gauntlet users who picked them up because “I want to get better at using The Hammer.” Even though one of the books went so far as to have a picture of a different tool — a pickaxe — on its cover, most of these people still only read the bits that could be used to improve their understanding of The Hammer.

This meant that, instead of learning about the wide variety of tools they could build and use, many carpenters who ditched The Gauntlet focused exclusively on what they could do with The Hammer. Occasionally, seasoned carpenters would mention these other tools, but most of The Hammer’s fans would scoff and say, “oh, those are just clones of The Hammer”. When carpenters who’d developed other tools spoke up about the merits of their work, they’d be rebuked: “you’re just jealous because The Hammer succeeded and you didn’t!”

As The Hammer’s following gathered momentum, it also gained an ever-narrower focus. Whenever someone would ask why The Hammer couldn’t handle screws or nuts or bolts, the way other tools could, its creator would reply, “The Hammer is for pounding nails. All those other things are out of scope.” When people mentioned other, more flexible tools to him, he’d dismiss them by saying, “well, I suppose those tools would be fine if you really wanted to work with screws.”

Some fans of The Hammer developed bulky add-ons which would let it handle other types of fasteners, but this was officially frowned upon and the add-ons had to be constantly updated to keep up with incompatible changes in new versions of The Hammer.

Others defected, giving up The Hammer in favor of other tools more suited to the projects they were working on; the appearance of The Hammer had been a sort of watershed, and now there were lots of good tools for carpenters to choose from. Industry publications called the boom “Carpentry 2.0”.

After a year or so had gone by, the big corporate carpentry shops began to take more notice of The Hammer, but still in a very tentative way. Usually they’d assign a couple of young carpenters to use it on a small project, “for evaluation purposes”. The big carpentry shops did a lot of business, so it would make sense for them to adopt anything that could improve their efficiency, but they were also worried about whether The Hammer was really suitable for their work — after all, most of them weren’t just working with nails anymore. What’s more, The Hammer was infamously hard to adapt for multi-national environments where the nails didn’t all conform to the shapes and sizes common in its country of origin. There was a well-known world-wide standard — Unipound — which had been developed to deal with internationalized carpentry, but The Hammer couldn’t be made to take advantage of that.

Many of the bigger carpentry shops had another worry as well: The Hammer was an “opinionated tool”, and to use it you had to pound the nail exactly the right way — if you didn’t, the nail might not go in at all. Its creator was known for his strong attitude on this point: he felt that The Hammer’s way of pounding was the right way to pound, and so The Hammer was extremely difficult to use if you needed to pound any other way. Of course, a lot of the big carpentry shops did need to pound other ways, in order to maintain compatibility with existing work.

All of this led the corporate types to take an extremely cautious attitude toward The Hammer; they said they’d rather wait a little while and see some The Hammer “mature a bit”. They also wanted case studies of The Hammer being used successfully in “enterprise carpentry” areas before they’d buy into it. That infuriated Hammer fans, and they would stampede into Internet discussion forums to bash on the “corporate fear-mongering” from people who obviously hadn’t seen how beautiful it could be to drive nails into wood without a fifteen-pound metal glove on your hand.

Regardless of whether it was a fair depiction, that ended up giving devotees of The Hammer a bad name: vicious defensiveness and a stubborn refusal to look at anything that wasn’t a nail became the stereotype of a Hammer user, and The Hammer’s public image suffered because of that.

The big corporate carpentry types did eventually come around and realize the benefits of The Hammer, though they did it in their own way: by publishing eight-hundred-page technical books on “Enterprise-Ready Hammering”, and forcing their carpenters to attend twice-weekly three-hour meetings on “vertically integrating Hammering patterns to strategically leverage W2W (Wood-to-Wood) transactional services”.

Meanwhile the other tools lurked in the background, quietly improving and adding new capabilities. Carpenters who looked past their initial thought — “oh, it’s just another clone of The Hammer” — discovered a new world of efficiency and productivity in the form of wrenches, screwdrivers, ratchets and even multi-tools. They began to build collections of useful tools, and used each one where it was appropriate. Many of them even kept a Hammer around for pounding on nails, because it could be quite good at that.