May the best technology win

I’ve become skeptical of arguments of the form “X is a better technology, but people won’t quit using Y.”

Comparisons of technologies are multi-faceted. When someone says “X is better than Y” I want to ask “By all criteria? There’s nothing better about Y?”

When people say X is better but Y won, it’s often the case that they think the criteria by which X is better are most important, but a majority placed more weight on the criteria by which Y is better.

Some plausible explanations for why people stick with Y:

  • X is better than Y for some tasks, but not many people consider those tasks most important.
  • X is marginally better than Y, but not enough better to justify the costs of switching.
  • X was better than Y, but they didn’t do the work of letting people know about it and explaining why it was better.
  • X is technically better than Y, but the personalities associated with X turn people off.

Sometimes the better alternative simply doesn’t win. The race doesn’t go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But often a broader perspective explains why the winner won.

Related post: Ford-Chevy arguments


5 thoughts on “May the best technology win

  1. Robert Arvanitis

    In life there are no solutions, only trade-offs.
    That’s why we use radar diagrams, to make comparisons on all dimensions.
    That’s also why the upper left hand corner is empty (low risk, high return). Because if it’s high return, you’re just missing the risk.

  2. Johnathan Corgan

    An existence proof that value is subjective. With goods that have a network effect, and trend toward winner-take-all, it is inevitable there will be some who are disappointed that their “better technology” choice did not become the winner.

  3. I share your skepticism. I think part of it is that people look at Y’s flaws and observe that X doesn’t have those particular flaws. From this, they conclude that X was technologically better. But of course this is a form of survivorship bias: if they used X enough to be aware of its flaws, they might find out that X has some fatal flaws that Y does not share.

    On the other hand, if there are many factors that influence success and technological merit is just one, then among many competing technologies, there’s no guarantee that the technology with the most technological merit will have the most success.

  4. To Johnathan Corgan‘s point, the problem with X is better than Y is that it takes a static view. It ignore the fact that X and Y can improve over time. If Y wins by network effects, then it will have more people working on improving it, whereas X may stagnate. So even if X was once better, it isn’t anymore.

Comments are closed.