Why fill-in-the-gadget-killers don’t actually kill

Every now and then in the tech news I see a new product announced as the fill-in-the-blank-killer. The most commonly touted is the supposed iPod-killer, though I’ve also seen supposed Macbook Air-killers, supposed Eee-killers, and supposed Google-killers.

The idea that some new product on the horizon is going to metaphorically “kill” some well-established industry-dominant product may make great news, but it’s also based on a faulty assumption that people buy or use products based on the products’ relative quality or features.

iPods aren’t popular because they are the best MP3 players on the market, even if you believe they are best. Google isn’t popular because it is the best search engine available, even if you believe it is the best. Whether iPods or Google is “the best” is irrelevant. Being “the best” may help the products or services retain their popularity, but it isn’t the primary reason they remain popular. It’s not workmanship and features. It’s entrenchment. It’s brand-name recognition. It’s also ignorance.

Do you know how many times I’ve had people assume my Sandisk player is a new kind of iPod? Do you know how many times people get confused when I tell them I don’t have an iPod? They seriously wonder how I’m able to listen to music. The furrowed brow almost says, “Is it possible he still listens to a Walkman… or listens to only records?” There are great things about iPods, I won’t deny. I love the circle scroll wheel, and I have to say they just look pretty. That said, they don’t have radios (and I’m not going to pay $50—the entire cost of my Sandisk player—to get some add-on that will allow an iPod to play the radio), don’t have a microphone, and won’t support drag-and-drop of music (you need a program like iTunes to manage your music transfers).

You could make a case by feature comparisons that many other MP3 players on the market are “better” than the iPods Apple produces. Maybe they can play more music formats. Maybe the sound is “better” for audiophiles. Maybe the battery life is longer. Maybe the screen is bigger. It doesn’t really matter. Most iPod owners I know (not all, of course) own an iPod because that’s all they know, and they don’t want to spend hours researching all the relatively unknown alternatives. iPods are convenient and “everybody” has them. They’re a safe bet. And that’s all people really want, a safe bet and what they’re used to.

I’ve been using Google for years now, and the only time I even considered switching was when the news announced the supposed Google-killer called Cuil. I thought I’d give it a shot, did two searches that turned up no results, and then I switched back to Google. Is it possible that there are better search engines out there than Google? It’s possible, definitely. Do I want to try every single search engine until I find “the best” one? No. Google is what I’m used to, and it works for me.

This is human nature, I think. No one has the time to test out every single option for every single thing they do. You can do a reasonable amount of research before making a choice, especially for big-ticket items (where to attend university, what car to purchase, which house to put a down payment on), but you wouldn’t have any time to live your life if you looked at every single shirt available before buying a shirt, tried every single search engine before picking one, read reviews for every single book before choosing one to read, and studied every restaurant’s menu before eating at one.

It’s for this very reason that I don’t try to “convert” Windows users to Linux. I think Linux is a great alternative to Windows under many circumstances, but if people are happy with Windows and used to it, they should be left alone with their choice. I certainly would get annoyed if people said, “You’re using Google still? What a sheep you are. You should use fill-in-the-blank search engine instead. It’s much better.” I know it’s possible there are better search engines out there. I just don’t see the need to change right now. Google works for me.

Now, that said, if someone complains about her iPod stinking and she wishes it had X, Y, and Z features, I’d be the first to suggest a non-Apple player. And if Google started turning up crappy search results, I’d be the first to ask, “Is there a better search engine than Google?” For something to “kill” the product or service I’m used to, it has to do a lot more than just be “better” or have extra features. It’s not easy to depose a king by promising to be a better king. A revolution against the current tyrant usually has to happen first.


Chasing the gadget dragon

A lot of tech enthusiasts are wondering whether they should get Eee PCs now or wait until something better comes out… or wait until the Eee’s have a better processor, or wait until the price has come down. My wife has been waiting for ages for the next-generation iPhone to come out.

Technology is moving at such a rapid pace these days that it’s hard to get that perfect deal we’re looking for. By the time such-and-such becomes affordable or better spec’ed, another product has come on the horizon and displaced it.

Sure, occasionally, you can get or miss the good deal (like when my sister-in-law bought an iPod and two weeks later Apple lowered the price by US$100 and included more with it), but most of the time, you’re chasing a ghost. If you need a gadget (“need” here being used loosely, as we don’t really need any gadgets), get it. By the time it dies or appears obsolete to you, there’ll be something else new and exciting around the corner.

I’ll end with a comment from our TV repair guy. Five years ago, my wife and I bought a TV that was state-of-the-art at the time (and very expensive) that is now kind of bulky in comparison to the ship-shape models of today. When it broke, we decided to get it repaired instead of getting it replaced, and we asked the repair guy how long it would last. He said something along the lines of, “It’ll last at least another five years. By then, we’ll all be watching television beamed straight to our brains anyway.” A bit of an exaggeration, of course, but there is truth in that statement.