Re: Worse is better

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From: Jeff Bone (
Date: Wed Mar 15 2000 - 22:40:41 PST

> * Qwerty may be worse that Dvorak, but it was far better than the existing
> competition it had at the time.

This may be a reasonable argument, I dunno.

> * The internal combustion engine won over steam buggies.
> * Digital computers won out over analog.

These aren't really comparisons-in-category.

> Beyond that, of course, quality is always a multi-dimensional thing, and
> there's something slightly solipsistic about your definitions of 'better.'
> Frankly, its only when the technologies are relatively close and there's a
> clear difference in marketing will the competition even be noticeable.

Of course quality is multi-dimensional. And I'm not claiming that these
technologies were "superior in every way." The "solipsism" argument might be valid,
but in most of those cases I didn't even come up with the comparisons. (For
instance: I know nothing about Beta except what several devoted, very geeky Beta
fans have told me; the ATV / HDTV argument is presented at length in Stewart
Brand's book The Media Lab, among many other places. I've never owned a Beta box
and personally, I thin HDTV is pretty rockin'. ;-) I'm *collecting* these sorts of
things. All these are subjective --- but they aren't picked out by my application
of some personal, technical brand of "purity test." I just find it interesting that
it's easy to find some consensus on many claims like these.

Side observation: it's usually us geeks that bitch about dead tech, and it's
usually the case that we were in the early adopter phases before the network effects
kicked in; in Bass terminology, we're the innovators. The imitators (the
marketers? ;-) almost never bitch about dead tech. But I've skipped ahead.

We could argue any of these claims, or the exact definition of "technically better,"
or whatever... but I'd hoped to avoid that. If you don't agree with some of the
claims, okay. :shrug I suspect, though, that enough of us have thought "gee, that
was great tech, too bad it tanked" that if we were to put together similar lists,
there'd be more overlap than disagreement.

> So, if we redefine your question (which maybe you meant it this way anyway),
> it becomes "Why in close technology races does the edge always seem to end
> up with the better marketer than the 'better' technology?" The answer is
> pretty simple -- in a word, network effects. If two technologies are
> comparable, the one which gains ground fastest will ultimately gain an
> advantage outweighing technical superiority. Which is ultimately marketing.

But I don't agree with the formulation of the question. When put that way, sure,
your answer is obvious. I suppose the question I'm really asking is "why do the
better marketers and the better technologies never end up in the same company?" Or,
if they do, give me an example.

Aside: To really understand the impact of network effects, try slamming the Bass
Diffusion Model into Excel sometime and then get your CFO to tie in the whole
company's financials to it. :-/ Then try to explain it to investors. 8-P :-)

I don't *really* believe that there is a _causal_ correlation between technical
excellence and market success. I'd just like to understand why these things are so
tightly bound. Is it *impossible* to be focused on both technical excellence (or
whatever) and conquering the world at the same time? Is it impossible to hire and
resource star marketing and tech teams simultaneously? Are the two things
fundamentally at odds in some way?

> Also, it depends on your goals. In most of your dichotomies, the
> "technically superior" product was mostly focused on being technically
> superior. The other product was focused on "taking over the world at any
> cost, and technical purity be damned." Who would you bet on in that
> context?

But now you're into strategy, and that's a lot easier to argue. Well, for sure the
latter! There's all the evidence for it, and no evidence to the contrary that I can
think of. :-) BTW, for the last few years, I've essentially been arguing for the
world-taking strategy. I've puzzled and irritated lots of geeky friends by telling
them "guess what, technology doesn't matter." :-/ In advisory capacities, I always
feel a bit sad for the guys that come to me with great techie credentials and solid
tech concepts, but no clue what to do.


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