I must admit that I was a bit concerned with what I perceived as a lack of innovation after not being a regular on BPL for almost a year back in 2009-2010. Upon returning, I looked around hard to see what cool new stuff had come out in that year assuming that the pace would stay the same and all sorts of new goodies would be at my fingertips. Sadly innovation seemed to have plateaued. It was all basically reiterations and tweaks of previously designed stuff, plus lots of designs redone in the unsuitable .35oz/yd variety of cuben that has since nearly vanished. At the time, I was sad. I didn't think BPL could possibly keep my attention or that there was anywhere left for the industry to go strictly regarding backpacking. While I still believe we have hit a plateau where refinements trump large changes, I can't say that it's a bad thing.
I think 2009 and 2010 was a time when the collective group started rebounding/retreating from pushing the UL ideal to the limits of practicality. People started to focus more on improving efficiency of their 8 or 15 pound load instead of seeing if they can sleep on a 1/8" foam mat. I feel the cottage industry has responded accordingly, appropriately, and predictably to the momentum of the market we are all a part of. They are meeting the demands of the people.
More packs with light suspension are coming from companies that wouldn't have considered it in 2008 or 2009 and are the new frontier cottage pack makers are working towards. Heck, even BPL came out with the Absoroka Pack not terribly long after articles promoting sub 5 lb packs were all the rage. People are interested in carrying real loads comfortably in a light pack. We should see more in the coming year. From what I have seen, I think your accusation that cottage packs are ugly and poorly made is generally unfounded. There is a reason more people use ULA than any other pack on thru hikes. However, there is one cottage company whose packs I have seen being repaired trailside, and I have seen several from that company.
Shelters are trending towards either full coverage with modular bug protection (TT, SMD, MLD, HMG, BPWWD) and/or being tweaks the old Nomad design (Lightheart, SMD, Suluk ALLWEPT, TT). People are raving about the Stratospire and Solong 6 not because of weight barriers, but because they provide more value per ounce. More room and full protection at less weight. SMD even has a 34 oz $125 roomy, full coverage shelter. It's what the people want, so that's where creative efforts are going. Sorry if it doesn't excite you Ryan.
We already have a huge range of titanium pots to cook in and efficient stoves to cook with. How many ways can you make water hot? If people demanded a better way, the market would respond. Many of the cottage manufacturers and UL Ambassadors like Skurka just use a supercat and call it a day. For the limited people in the market for a wood stove, efficiencies and ease of use can be pushed a little higher, sure. If there was a significant enough demand for wood stoves, more companies would be more interested in making new awesome ones.
Sleeping pads are moving along nicely both from big companies and cottage ones. Bender is making highly regarded mats that are three times as warm as my old BA insulated aircore for about the same weight. The barrier to entry for making something like the new super warm neoair (R value of 5 i think?) is pretty high though. To say that cottage companies should accept the risk involved with something like this or sonic welding is pretty bold. Outsource a sonic welded backpack? Could work. The big companies have the ability to do this much more easily and efficiently than the cottage industry though, which is why they do.
With sleeping bags, you can see cost and weight savings instituted by Tim Marshall using karo baffles in his down quilts. Zpacks designed a strange but awesome quilt/sleeping bag hybrid. Titanium Goat and Thru Hiker are continuing to optimize fabric options. A breathable cuben is on the way too, although I don't see much point in it since breathable fabric tend to require little in the way of tensile strength, but more abrasion resistance. Either way, they are all moving forward. There are several other down quilt makers from the hammock world as well who provide alternatives to the expensive company that remains unmentioned. What sort of progress could you be looking for in this department?
One area that has been slow to develop is clothing. This is also an area where the big industries have a huge competitive advantage, so the cottage industry is wise to stay away from it. Midsize companies continue to be competitive though, like WM and FF. Clothing isn't going to change much and it isn't nearly as specialized as gear.
While saying economists don't have solutions may be true, it isn't their goal. I believe they focus more on understanding and explaining behavior from people and businesses. People's need for innovation is lower now than in 2008 when things were full speed ahead. As a market, we have settled on a desire to have our packs reasonably light with well performing, comfortable gear. The cottage industry is supplying us with that. They innovate and produce to meet our demands, not just for the sake of doing it.
Ryan, I am really sorry the cottage industry is not making strides to entertain you when you review gear. Are you worried that lack of excitement will hamper BPL popularity? There must be some serious cognitive dissonance going on since you are condescending to the cottages for not innovating whilst simultaneously patronizing the members of the community that drive the demand for innovation and support the cottage industry. I find it especially odd for you to say this when you and BPL have the history, resources, connections, and built in audience to be one of those innovators you seek others to be.
End of rant. Time to breathe, pack up my gear and head out for a trip tomorrow!