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?