The Best Technology Does’t Always Win
I’m constantly amazed by the choices of services that internet users make. People, by and large, choose Instagram over Flickr, despite the latter offering exponentially more features. Spotify has the most listeners of any of the streaming music services, despite stronger competitors with better user experience or more innovative features. It would seem that market dominance of one service would be ephemeral, as the barrier to switching from one service to another on the internet is so low. Most of the time, we are literally talking about creating a free login.
After Facebook acquired Instagram, some questionable changes were put into place. Instagram would have the ability to use your photos in advertisements. The community flew into a tantrum, and Instagram backed down. Instagram also ceased supporting Twitter cards, so that photos posted on Instagram could not be seen on Twitter, and a user would have to click through to the Instagram website. It was a blatant move by the new owners to remove a feature that helped a competing social media service. Few users complained about that action, and, at least in my feed, the majority of photos posted still come from Instagram. I just don’t see most of these photos, because they aren’t embedded like pictures from Twitter or Flickr, and I don’t always feel like clicking on links to go to a separate site to view them. It was that move that caused me to switch from Instagram to Flickr.
Flickr supports Twitter cards. Flickr images show up inline on the Twitter page and mobile client. I wanted to have a better chance of users seeing my photos, and not just scrolling past the tweet. It didn’t take me long to realize how much better Flickr was as a service. You can choose on a per photo or photo set basis whether to make the photos publicly accessible. I feel much more comfortable posted photos of the kids privately, though others are rethinking their stance on this. You can license your photos through creative commons. You can join groups. You can organize your photos into albums and even buy books of them. Overlong end user licensing agreements not withstanding, all of these features lead to a greater sense of ownership over your work. Flickr also has a lot of public domain photos, which I love to use for covers for my Rdio playlists.
I honestly thought that Facebook was crazy to pay $1 billion for Instagram. If they made tweaks, people didn’t like, it was so easy for those people to leave. It could become a ghost town, in no time, as FB attempted to bend it to their business model. It’s not like Instagram has any technology that can’t be copied (as many have, with the filters). The community could easily be recreated elsewhere. Well, that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. People are sticking with what they know, and what there friends use.
I had to remind myself, that, as witnessed in the battle between VHS and Betamax, the best technology doesn’t always win out with consumers. Most experts agreed that Betamax tape was of superior quality to the competing VHS tape. Advancements, such as hi-fi sound, came first to beta (as Betamax was colloquially known). There are other considerations, besides quality, that come into play. In the case of the two warring video cassette formats, it was Sony’s all-too-expected tight grip on the Betamax technology, and refusing to license it to other companies, which limited the format’s reach and caused its downfall. While JVC licensed VHS technology to other companies, VCR’s using VHS cassette’s proliferated and simply overran the market. Why produce your movies in the Betamax format if only those with Sony players could watch them? Why would consumers buy Betamax when all of their friends had VHS machines?
Sony didn’t completely learn its lesson from the humbling experience, though. Perhaps because the playing field looked so painfully similar, they did join forces with other companies on the DVD standard. However, they made many of the same choices they had made with beta in their handling of the MiniDisc format and the ATRAC encoding standard. The MiniDisc format was never widely adopted, due in large part to high prices, draconian copy protection and Sony’s tight lock on the format. ATRAC was the recording compression technology used for mini-disc, for which it was quite well suited. However, though mini-disc technology didn’t take off, Sony took the proprietary compression format and used it for their line of solid-state, digital Walkman. There is a reason most of us call solid state digital music players “MP3 Players.” The (mostly) open MP3 standard was totally dominant (sorry ogg vorbis die hards), and any company that did not adopt the standard that almost everyone was using for their portable electronics was doomed to failure. Sony’s offering couldn’t compete with the ubiquitousness of mp3, which isn’t even regarded as a very good compression technology.
People often make choices about what technology they use based on factors extrinsic to the quality of the technology. Factors influencing decisions include marketing, branding, what their friends use and accessibility. None of this should be very surprising. I suppose what surprises me most is that people don’t migrate between services as often as the ease of migration would allow, or even encourage. People don’t try out new services that often. Online services have a certain stickiness and better technology doesn’t always matter, either for initial adoption, or retention.
This subject reminds me of a scene from the movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley, about the beginnings of Apple and Microsoft. After learning that Microsoft has basically ripped of the GUI work that Apple was doing, Steve Jobs (as played by Noah Wyle) says to Bill Gates (played by Anthony Michael Hall):
“We’re better than you are! We have better stuff.”
Gates responds, “You don’t get it Steve. That doesn’t matter!”
They were both right.
I once ran probably one of the most innocuous experiments ever. It was testing word orientation, and the Stroop Effect, with expressly consenting adults. I had to go through a fairly rigorous approval process. Relatively speaking, some of the Facebook experimenting kind of amazes me, in terms of what they are able to get away with under relatively little oversight or disclosure. ↩
In fairness, there are those that dispute the accepted narrative that Sony refused to license the technology, arguing that Sony actually did invite JVC to license the technology and that JVC declined. However, given the pattern of Sony’s business decisions, especially with subsequent products, the conventional story of them keeping the standard closed is certainly an easy one to believe, as most do. ↩
One Thing Well
I totally agree with the “one thing well” mentality espoused by Patrick Rhone and others. Matthew Guay goes into this idea, urging Apple and others to focus on this concept with new gadgets and software.
It’s not just traditional tools that can be single-purpose and focused. Software, too, can be a honed tool that’s perfect for just one thing. There’s Instapaper, with its simple idea to save article to read later and nothing else. There’s iA Writer, the most minimal writing app possible with nary a setting in sight—the closest to a digital typewriter yet. There’s web browsers like Safari, that with each release get closer and closer to having no UI and only the web pages you’re looking at. There’s even something more valuable in extremely focused apps—you can find all types of unique use cases for a read later app or a plain text writing app or anything else that’s focused, just because it’s great at one thing.
My musical tastes weren’t arrested in college, but you’d never know it from the playlist I just made. http://t.co/M1GkHbWBfK— Robert (@mineinmono) July 4, 2014
Created this playlist for a beach trip. Hope it works for anyone driving down the coast during the summer.