Bike companies all seem to offer the same kind of product lineup. The high end models have all the expensive parts. Down in the upper mid range are the really good values, where material and workmanship are good enough to perform well and heavy enough to last a while. From there down, the bikes just have increasingly shoddy knock-offs of the features on the higher-priced models.
Are consumers driven enough by appearances to make that the most profitable approach?
Bikes are not like other consumer goods. The rider has to bring something to the machine. Let the discount stores sell the hideous facsimiles of full suspension. The independent bike dealer has to deal more personally with the customer. We have to answer questions, sometimes very pointed questions.
A better approach to the product continuum would be to make the lowest price bikes have the fewest features and add features on the way up the price scale. Don't have a heavy, crappy suspension fork. Have no suspension fork. The bike will be lighter and more nimble. Give it nice enough geometry to make a fun ride.
Keep models to a minimum and adaptability to a maximum. With open-face stems and threadless headsets, position modifications are quick and easy. Quill stems had their advantages, and could still fit into a quickly customized format with multi-bolt clamps, so either way works.
Make rigid fork MTB-based models suspension ready. This allows the rider to make incremental upgrades and means the factory can produce a standard frame for multiple models.
At the moment, outfits like Surly, Soma and Pake offer parts of this concept, but they are still enthusiast bikes. Affordability is relative.
Maybe I don't shop enough, and some plucky little company is already doing this. I haven't seen it yet. Most small companies target the eccentric but already committed cyclist or offer slimmed-down versions of the big-company business model.
Osobike has one model that begins to do what I'm talking about, but it's one bike. That seems to be their sole product. A good start, certainly. They're thinking in the right direction.
Some components would have to come back from the grave, most notably mid-grade top-mount MTB shifters, indexed with friction option. If someone wants trickier shifting, buy the model that comes with it or upgrade your current bike to it. Business competition Shimano-style would ruin it, because constant change and compatibility issues would make upgrading difficult or impossible.
For the road the task becomes a little more difficult, since the barcon shifter is the current compromise between down tube and brifter. Suntour had the Command shifter in the 1990s, but the company went down soon after that, so the shifters didn't really get a full-on test in the marketplace.
The point of the truly minimalist bike company would be to offer the best quality at each price point by offering fewer features, of higher quality, not the same number of features made to lower standards. I'd rather ride a nimble 8-speed than a clunky 30-speed. And I think the new cycling consumer would appreciate the ride and the longevity, given the chance to compare.
Good thing I don't have any money, eh? I'd probably lose the whole wad, betting on substance over image.