What is a reasonable minimal viable product? This is open to interpretations. However, it is clear when a product has too many functions to be useful. And some products are probably useful for a couple of functions, but not for everything else they offer. Here I want to discuss some of the multitools we see and use, and why we use them. More stuff here, here, and here.
The swiss army knife
The multitool that started the entire story was a swiss army knife. It was not the first multitool. For example, medieval lantern shields used for dueling often had lantern placement, pistol holes, and various spikes to capture the other side’s sword or to use instead of a sword. Only these monstrosities were not widely used. Swiss army knife or its variation is used by everybody.
I personally use my Lederman for paper/package knife, scissors to cut loose thread, beer bottle opener. I think I used pincers once, and one of the screwdrivers once in my entire life. Basically, I could do with a multitool that has just three functions instead of several dozens.
Collectors have swiss army knives with 100 functions – perfectly useless curiosity is you ask me. The Swiss Army knife was first produced in 1891 when the Karl Elsener company, which later became Victorinox, won the swiss army contract. In January 1891, the knife received the official designation Modell 1890. The knife had a blade, a reamer for punching holes in leather and canvas, a can opener, a screwdriver for swiss army rifle disassembly, and grips made out of dark oak wood. It was for very specific military use.
I understand the addition of scissors, saw blade, corkscrew, and key ring. What about another 100 functions? Probably flashlight or laser pointer do not belong to a knife, maybe to a pen. A magnifier? Probably better use your phone instead. A set of wrenches or screwdrivers? Probably better use dedicated multitools. A fish scaler? Better use a very specific easy to clean tool. A multitool with all functions is an unwieldy curiosity.
Minimal viable multitool
To be honest there are many great multitools. An electric drill that is also a screwdriver is a great multitool. It is huge, but it can do a lot of things very efficiently.
A telescopic pointer that is also a laser pointer and a stylo performs its functions in the conference rooms, allowing pointing and pressing when needed. It might also be a pen, but the pen functionality is less than perfect.
Multifunction pens that have a pen, a highlighter, and a mechanical pencil might be a good emergency solution if you happened to run out of ink.
Our mobile phone and digital watch can perform a lot of functions perfectly well, and we feel naked without them.
The thing is: we select the basic object we need, and use its shape factor to add functions that benefit from the shape and that are closely related to the dedicated tool we started with. Inventing a totally new multitool can provide very strange results, which are inspiring but probably not very useful.
One tool to do it all
You do not need to take 100 blades for 100 functions. One strange tool can do many things. An example would be this B.A.T. coin multitool.
One coin-size tool with at least 10 cutting and opening functions… Could be very cool for a tracker or an alpinist where every gram matters.
In theory, you can do tons of stuff with this one tool, including starting a fire (if you also have a ferro rod) and betting (flipping the coin). But will you use it when you actually need to cut things? Or will it tear your pocket when you least need it?
The two biggest disadvantages of this thing: no leverage to apply force when you need the device, and no sheath to hide it when you do not need it. If you are outdoors, you are likely to have a small 100 grams swiss knife with 10+ functions, which does not have these limitations.
There is a huge range of potentially multitools: swiss knives, paracord bracelets, pens, and sporks. Some of these tools are less useful but highly collectible.
Take, for example, the Lederman tread bracelet. It is potentially very useful, and can also go with a watch or compass or both. When you adjust it to you hand, you remove the tools you do not need and leave only the tools you want. Each link of the bracelet can serve three different purposes, which is manageable. And it can pass security (!), something other multitools rarely do. The entire bracelet can be used for leverage, which is also fine. Yet,… Quite large, expensive, and not very handy screwdriver set. Try reaching the screw you need (the damn thing is not long enough!) and you will start hating it.
Something which is a beautiful precision-made tool can be used as men’s jewelry and collectible item, even if it has no real purpose.
Laptop with multiple displays
The laptop with 7 displays immediately won the attention of curiosity lovers. It is pretty much useless with 30 min battery life and heavy desktop weight, but it got a lot of media attention. Why? Because it offers more functions than you will ever need.
Some devices are implemented creativity exercises: find a way to put 7 potentially useful displays on one laptop! Go!
The result can further be analyzed, and actually usable tools can be built. While 7 screens are an overdose, a laptop can for example use a small touchscreen display in addition to the main display. And some mainstream laptops already offer this option. What about two small screens hanging from both sides of the main screen? Also potentially useful. Just not 7 screens on one device.
In theory spies used equipment with hidden functions. Like these KGB cameras. Or medieval rings that could dispatch poison. Or … google glasses.
While the owner of the equipment may feel some romantic empowerment it is not very useful for normal people. And for security personnel trying to deal with mobile phones, dictaphone pens, and smart watches, you will be an immediate attention target.
In the 21st century, you may safely assume that every conversation can be recorded and everybody can carry a “wire”. A blade can be hidden everywhere, like in shoe soles. Moreover, a ceramic blade will be sharper than steel yet virtually undetectable. Yesterday’s spy equipment is a relic of the past or a toy of today.
Today’s spy-grade equipment is a remotely operated AI-enabled machine gun or exploding suicide drones that can be installed today and activated a month from now. This is not something you want to carry with you unless you are a real spy.
Who needs a spork?
A titanium spoon that is also a fork and can function as a sort of a knife is another iconic multitool. Only, I do not get it… Sporks are beloved for their cultural irony. In Victorian times, you could get a dedicated ice cream fork that looked very similar to a spork. They are not really great multitools…
A spoon, a fork, and a knife do not weigh that much or take that much space. Moreover, we kind of love to eat with a knife and a fork… And if we ate with one side of a spork, it is kind of not very esthetic to use it as a handle – a limitation of many modern sporf designs.
Chopsticks are probably more efficient than spork, do not take as much space, and are perfectly acceptable eating utensils… You can make forkchops which combine western knife and fork with Asian chopsticks. Again, I am not really sure why…
If you are outdoors you probably have a good knife, say Spyderco or Ontario Rat. Then you probably have a multitool, say a small Laderman. You can precut everything you need to eat, and put it on a skewer. Will you even need a spoon? Maybe… A spoon chopstick set will do the trick. Will you need a fork? I do not really see why. Will you need a spork? Maybe if you did not learn to use chopstics.
It’s not that sporks are useless. They definitely are great for prison catering, where you do not want inmates to hurt each other. In the military or airlines they cut costs of utensils. And you cannot really expect western children to use chopsticks properly.
Multitool or not
I kind of love multitools that work properly. Take a device that works well, make sure that the functions combine properly, and carry it with you. I love my miniature Laderman. I really NEED my mobile phone. And possibly a mechanical clutch pencil with a sharpener and eraser. That’s about it.
For everything else, I really prefer using dedicated tools. Multitools simply introduce unnecessary tradeoffs. Maybe a fountain pen or a clock or even a multitool bracelet also function as jewelry. This is fine, but I really prefer my Lami Safari over some of the fancy fountain pens I have. It simply is lighter and more ergonomic.
The more functions we add, the harder are the tradeoff, and the less useful are the extra functions…