November 4, 2009

Does technology fail because of switching costs and user laziness?

[Much more detail on this topic can be found at Stan Liebowitz's webpage, especially in the books The Economics of QWERTY and Winners, Losers, & Microsoft.]

Google's web browser Chrome hasn't done well in its first year. Obviously we'd need to wait for another year or so just to see if things stay that way, but we're already hearing the predictable whining from its supporters about why it isn't off to such a hot start. Impartial spectators in the article ask obvious questions like, "Does the world need another web browser?" and "Does anyone but geeks care about how fast it goes compared to current alternatives?" Those are the obvious reasons that no one is adopting Safari, Opera, or Chrome -- nothing gained for 99% of internet users.

But losers are never content with simple answers, so of course we have to hear all over again about how users are so lazy that they get "locked in" to the browser they start off with, and that they don't migrate to an allegedly superior one because of the high "switching costs." Both are wrong.

Whiners always have a selective memory, so it may surprise them to notice that there have been three separate cases of a browser's surge in market share in only 10 to 15 years. First Netscape Navigator soared to dominance, and not just because it was first -- there is no reason for there to have been a winner-take-all browser. Early browsers could well have been evenly distributed. But Navigator was better than the others, so it won. Then Microsoft's Internet Explorer came along, and it was better than Netscape -- so it rose to dominance, dethroning Navigator. A while later Firefox showed up, and it's been steadily eroding Internet Explorer's market share ever since. Quite plainly, there is no such thing as lock-in or inertia for usage of web browsers.

Whiners also say that most people lazily stick with the default browser their computer came with. That would surprise Netscape Navigator users, since that was not the default. Nor has Firefox been the default, and it's been sapping the growth of the browser that is the default -- for almost all computer owners, no less. Safari has been the default for Macs since 2003, and yet despite Macs having roughly 10% share of their market, the Safari browser that comes with it has only 2-3% of its market. In other words, most Mac owners junk Safari and install something else. At least for things that are important to people, there is no such thing as blindly following what's given.

And as for switching costs, there are none but those that the newcomers inflict upon themselves, at least for web browsers. The analogy that switching costs is supposed to make is to learning a new language. Imagine that one language were more expressive than another -- you might not switch because it's simply hard to re-learn a whole new set of rules relating to word order, vocabulary, word-formation, sound sequences, and so on.

But that is almost never true for a mature technology because the producers have an incentive to make new technologies compatible with old ones -- in particular, they have an incentive to make the knowledge about how to use the old one carry over. When CD player producers wanted consumers to switch from playing cassettes to CDs, did they throw a whole new set of buttons at them? No, because no new functions were needed -- stop, play, etc. Did they plaster a whole new set of symbols to identify each function -- say, a happy face on the play button, a sad face on the stop button, faces looking left and right for the rewind and fast-forward buttons? No, they carried over the same symbols as before. Some of these pairings between symbol and function are so standard that you can easily pick out the record button on any device that records.

These no-brainer design choices made using a CD player automatic if you already knew how to use a cassette player. All you had to learn was how to open and close the disc drive or tray, but they made that as similar as possible to ejecting a cassette.

(Similarly, I can play a video game that has jump and attack functions and know exactly which buttons do which, without reading the manual, and even if they have different symbols on them, because those function-position pairings were standardized 20 years ago.)

The same is true for web browsers. Firefox carried over the left and right arrows for back-page and forward-page, a circle-with-an-arrow for refresh, a red octagon for stop, and a house for homepage. The URL bar, probably the most important feature, looks the same. Really, when you try out any web browser for the first time, are you that confused about how it works? It couldn't be simpler to switch. There are surely lots of differences across browsers that no one cares about, like how to alphabetize your list of 40,000 tentacle porn bookmarks, but 99% of the activity that 99% of users are doing requires only a handful of features that have become standardized.

There are a few exceptions that might make it harder to switch, but those were self-inflicted. For example, why does Safari fuse a stop button with a bookmark button -- and use the symbol of a plus sign? That's not intuitive at all. Stop buttons should always be red X's, red octagons, red traffic lights, whatever. Not a plus sign.

Also, the two browsers with the lowest share, Opera and Chrome, put their tabs in funny places. Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari all have the URL bar above the tab headings. Opera and Chrome have a URL bar embedded underneath each tab heading. Why would this matter? I don't know, but it truly jumped out at me as weird when I saw what Chrome and Opera looked like. I'm sure the Asperger-y designers have a solid logical case for why this is, mathematically speaking, the optimal design. But real people have voted that it isn't. And they don't need to explain why -- it just feels weird.

If web browsers competed at least partly based on price, then relatively poorly designed ones like Opera, Chrome, and Safari could capture a larger market share by charging less. After all, many people, like me, are content with a mediocre mp3 player -- since they rarely use it, they'll just take what's cheap. But since all browsers are free, there is even more intense competition based on quality -- visual design, intuitive use, desired features, etc. So the newcomer had better blow the incumbent out of the water, or don't even bother.

It isn't lazy or unwashed consumers who keep a new technology from being adopted -- it's arrogant producers who declare what consumers must use to qualify as human. How did that work out for the command-line interface?


  1. Chrome isn't doing all that terrible. I believe it's already beating Opera and is closing in on Safari. It took Firefox years to pick up market share, and it still only as 24%. The real reason it hasn't taken off is because there's no real need for it. Older versions of IE were so terrible that there was a clear niche for a superior browser, and Firefox has filled that niche. Your whole point on user laziness is belied by the fact that 23.3% of people use the awful IE6 and the only slightly better IE7 has 18.8% share. There are now a bunch of pretty decent browsers, but almost half of people use horribly outdated ones (IE6 doesn't even have tabs). I use IE8, Firefox and Chrome at different times and on different computers, so I'm no fanboy for any particular browser.

  2. "Does anyone but geeks care about how fast [Chrome] goes compared to current alternatives?"

    Yes, everybody. There are all sorts of web apps that are basically impossible today, because the browsers are so slow. I'm thinking along the lines of a collaborative word processor with integrated voice chat and voice-to-text notes. The existence of Flash is proof: current browsers suck so hard that Adobe could outdo them.

    "Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari all have the URL bar above the tab headings. Opera and Chrome have a URL bar embedded underneath each tab heading. Why would this matter?"

    Things you click on often should be closest to the edge, to be closest to the mouse cursor when it plows to a halt at the edge of the screen. Frankly the tabs ought to be where the title bar is, with everything inside the tabbed pane.

    "But real people have voted that it isn't. And they don't need to explain why -- it just feels weird."

    Both are equally weird and unwieldy. One simply has a lot more synapses programmed in the cerebellum. Moving GUI widgets around is like rearranging someone's office overnight. Even if the new arrangement is 10X better and can be learned in an hour, they'll still chase you with an axe.

    eBay once started a revolt by changing a color on a form—people reflexively flipped out, which for their brainstem-with-a-voice demographic was pretty disruptive. So they change it back and grovelled disgustingly. Then they started changing it gradually, adjusting the color a few percent a week until it was back to the "bad color"; nobody noticed.

  3. "Your whole point on user laziness is belied by the fact that 23.3% of people use the awful IE6 and the only slightly better IE7 has 18.8% share.z'

    Perhaps they find tabs unnecessary, annoying, cluttering, etc.? Remember, the internet is much more widely used than 15 years ago, so you have plenty of people who have little need for what you and I consider necessary, but which they'd consider mere bells & whistles.

    I still use a Sensor Excel razor because I find those 3, 4, and 5000-blade razors pointless.

    Again, with heterogeneity of preferences in the audience, you aren't going to have a total winner-take-all outcome.

  4. Anonymous5:46 PM

    I use Chrome for 95% of my internet experience. It is incredibly faster than any other browser, which is the most important thing for me.

    Anyone still using IE is just doesn't care. It's a pile of shit.

    Firefox is a worthless browser because it takes 5 minutes to load (I exaggerate, maybe 30 seconds). However, a lot of people won't leave Firefox because of add-ons, which would obviously no longer be available when switching. For example, Firebug is an essential plugin for designing webpages. Fortunately, I don't make design decisions very often (I just let our current theme do its magic) so I don't have to bring it up.

    So, unless you have some lock-in to Firefox extensions (e.g. you have some weird fetish for making the internet complicated... or you are an academic that uses Zotero for collecting citations) you should use Chrome and the only thing that will bother you is ads.

    Tabs? You'll get used to it. It makes more sense anyway. You'll realize. Why do your eyes needs to scan over the tabs before making it to the URL bar??? Yeah, answer that for me.

  5. I use Firefox mostly, so I already do use tabs. My point is that -- strange as it is for Asperger sufferers to believe -- people's preferences aren't all the same.

    A 50 year-old aunt who uses the internet to keep in touch with family through email, and maybe check the weather or local news, doesn't need lightning-fast speed or tabs.

  6. If anyone is offended by tabs then they are perfectly free to simply not use them. The existence of tabbed browsing is a Pareto improvement; some people are better off and no one is worse off for it. Even your 50 year old aunt would benefit from being able to check the weather and the news at the same time.

    Another advantage of using a modern browser is that they are standards compliant. I'm no web designer, but it is my understanding that it is necessary to kludge together a bunch of IE6 only hacks to support it. So there is a very good reason for the webpage developing community to hate old browsers.

  7. Underachiever11:58 PM

    Reading this post made me want to try Chrome. To be honest, it's amazing. The increase in speed is very noticeable.

  8. I recently switched from IE to Firefox for most things because Wikipedia didn't work right with IE. I couldn't figure out how to fix it, so I just switched to Firefox.

    I tried Chrome. No Google bookmarks. I use one PC at work, another at home. I need the bookmarks to sync. Chrome doesn't offer support for Google toolbar, which I really rely on.

  9. Opera has a killer app: It can play the Javascript port of Caste Wolfenstein.

  10. Thought you'd be interested in this.

  11. There are the lazy users but even they will switch if the need is there. I agree with the "Do we really need another web browser" point of view though I do feel Chrome does bring something unique to the table.

    I've thought for a long time that Microsoft should just abandon their Web Browser/Web Search. Competition is important but they have been trying to be relevant for so long and their competition is MILES ahead of them. Microsoft is so big you think they would have something more important for the developers to work on.

  12. I have to admit, I'm not up on browsers. Why does microsoft or google or whoever care what browser people use?

    I strongly suspect that open-source things are for the sort of people who can't think of anything more fun on a Friday night than adjusting browser settings. I'm sure there exceptions for things where proprietary versions are really expensive, finite element analysis and multiphysics come to mind.

    The vast majority of people who just want something to work are not lazy, they simply want something different from the application than software evangelists.

    Off topic: why is almost everything on wikipedia convoluted, stilted, and written in the passive voice? Is it because is plagarized, is that writing style a side effect of Aspergers?


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