How often do superior alternatives fail to catch on?

Many of us rely on a Qwerty keyboard, at least when we are typing at a laptop. It is often said that the Qwerty keyboard is inferior to clearly better alternatives like the Dvorak keyboard. However, this appears to be largely a myth backed by dubious science.

There is the similarly often repeated story of VHS versus Betamax tapes, when people would record video on tapes. The often told story was that Betamax lost to VHS despite being technically superior. But VHS tapes could record whole 2-hour movies whereas Betamax could not: so VHS was indeed superior.

It is often said that birds have far superior lungs than mammals. So mammals are failures compared to birds… However, bats (which are mammals) have superior lungs than either terrestrial mammals or birds. This suggests that mammals can acquire better lungs when they need it.

I fear that many of the stories about us being stuck with inferior products due to market failures, or about animals being stuck with inferior organs due to evolutionary dead-ends, might actually be weak or false stories.

Credit: This post was inspired by an email exchange with Peter Turney.

Daniel Lemire, "How often do superior alternatives fail to catch on?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 24, 2017.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

9 thoughts on “How often do superior alternatives fail to catch on?”

  1. Or … that it depends what “superior”means. It all depends on what is more valuable to a user (and to use your Betamax / VHS example, better picture quality – that could or could not be discernable at the time – or storing a full length movie). So I don’t believe they are all necessarily false stories, but circumstances that had variables that were not evaluated properly :).

    1. Yeah, “superior” in this sense seems to be whatever is better at performing a particular function. I could use a nice camera to capture my vacation in France, but if the allure of using my smartphone is its size, then the function is less important than the device’s practical use. With many of these examples, there are competing interests.

  2. What is ‘superior’? It’s a false question, because superior/inferior are relative terms, and completely dependent on the user’s perspective and what they are trying to accomplish.

    For example, lowest price could be the metric I use to determine what is best (superior), while someone else might prioritize materials (gold vs platinum vs plastic vs wood), and another might prioritize ‘fit and finish’ or sustainability or packaging or even branding. In every case, what we judge to be superior will depend on a complex mix of alternatives, trade-offs, preferences and needs. Some will consider a Tesla superior, others a Ferrari, while others a Hyundai Elantra — it all depends upon suitability for purpose and what you value.

    There are very, very few instances where anything can be judged to be objectively superior versus all other alternatives. Your article hints at this without actually saying it. It’s not that the stories are weak or false, but that the premise that we can agree on ‘superiority’ is false.

    What I think is superior never fails to catch on for me. And occasionally the superior product or tool is simply the one that’s available to do the job. That’s where your attention should focus — what’s the desired outcome, or job I need to get done? Only then does the question of what’s superior have meaning.

  3. I think you should be careful citing “The Fable of The Keys” as anything other than an overview. The authors performed no experiments that I could see (it’s a long paper), and merely seem to review real studies. You should definitely read it yourself, and not take my word for this.

  4. The concepts of superiority and progress are illusions with respect to suitability of form or function in a dynamic environment. Lemarckian and Darwinian evolutionary theory contrasts spring to mind.

  5. Blog comments are superior to the articles, because they are unbiased by editing, forethought and often times a sound mind.

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