Ryan responds to my last post. I appreciate the thoughtful attention, but I can’t say that I agree with much of his post.
I understand what Tomâs saying, but I think heâs missing some key points. He wants to judge a technology in a “pure” world, outside the presence of the market conditions in which it will be sold and used, but you canât do that. The utility of a technology is inextricably connected to the market conditions in which it will be sold and used. A Beta videotape might clearly be superior on most quality variables, but if a VHS tape is long enough to hold a full-length movie and Beta isnât, well thatâs important. Saying that length shouldnât be as important as other variables is pointless; the market didnât just want “Quality,” it wanted a certain quality.
I was careful not to mention Beta/VHS before because Ryan’s exactly right: length vs. quality is reasonable decision to have to make, and one that the market is better positioned to make than I am.
But his larger point is wrong. Yes, the utility of a technology can only be judged in relation to the world at large — more precisely, the world as it currently exists. But a technology absolutely can be judged apart from that, in its own timeless, rarified world. Every engineering discipline develops principles and design patterns by which work can be judged. Technical elegance is a real thing, and it really matters. Something designed well will be reusable, will be extensible, will be, as we sometimes say, “futureproof”.
And the difference between a good and a bad design does not always come with tradeoffs. The components in a DAT cassette deck and a high-end analog cassette deck are pretty similar. DAT has been much less commercially successful. But it is the superior technology. There’s just no getting around that. In that case the cost of finding the better solution was time; in other cases it’s as simple as giving a damn.
>The fact is that in many cases it would be better if those factors were weighted differently.
Emphasis mine. To this, economists will say, “Says who?” But the broader point is this. Tom believes that he can look at a technology and say itâs better or worse than another technology. Economists say he canât, because Tom doesnât actually know what the great mass of consumers wants.
I’ll bite: why do I feel so confident saying it would be better if the weighting were different? Well, consider the reason why MS-DOS was successful: it was selected for inclusion on IBM’s soon-to-be-blockbuster line of microcomputers. There were a number of similar technologies at the time, and it was up to IBM to choose one. Why MS-DOS? Well, depending on which version of the story you subscribe to, it was because Bill Gates’ main competitor was late to a meeting, or his wife wouldn’t sign an NDA, or, ironically, because the competing system was too successful in the marketplace and its owner — not realizing how valuable or market-changing the IBM deal would be — didn’t want to sign over his business for what IBM was offering.
This all made perfect sense at the time. But now, decades later, what has the result been? It would be wrong to assign all of Microsoft’s sins to MS-DOS, but the fact remains that the system was unequivocally technically inferior to other operating systems of the day, as judged by those aforementioned engineering principles. And those principles won out, as they almost always do: limitations of MS-DOS that may not have been immediately apparent became evident as technology advanced, and countless amounts of money and effort had to be expended to come up with workarounds, fixes and kludges. In a word: externalities!
How much did that all cost? I have no idea, but it clearly dwarfs the amounts that were being weighed and judged against one another during the IBM-CP/M-MSDOS deal. There’s every reason to believe that, had a superficially similar but fundamentally superior technology to MS-DOS been selected, we would all be better off.
Now of course I can’t say that definitively. Maybe the productivity gains of an all-Unix world would have been so great that we’d have accidentally opened an interdimensional portal to Dinosaur World by now and all been devoured. Or something. But I can say that the selection of an engineered product carries costs that may not be apparent for years — costs that non-experts are in no position to estimate until they occur. And even experts can generally only say “this was built well” or “this was built poorly”. But in many cases that’s enough, and it would save us all a lot of money if we listened to those pronouncements more carefully.
Oh, and one more thing: it’s probably worth noting that one of the greatest technical (and economic) triumphs in recent memory — TCP/IP and the suite of other protocols and standards that powers the internet — was designed by having a bunch of really smart engineers get together, execute an RFC process and then issue an ISO standard more or less by fiat. This is not to say that markets can’t help us arrive at good solutions — cable vs. DSL vs. FiOS is a good example of such a market working (or would be if the regulatory picture weren’t so complicated). But it ought to be acknowledged that markets are not always an optimal tool for making technical decisions. In fact there are now pseudo-centralized organizations that take responsibility for many of the technical standards that power our world, and nearly all engineers agree that we’re vastly better off for it.
UPDATE: Tim, who knows considerably more about this than I do, corrects my history and explains that TCP/IP did triumph through competition with other protocols. Fair enough! But I think the point stands: even when there is a “competition” stage in drafting a net technology spec — and this is an important function of the RFC process, so there ought to be — it’s still true that the selection of the winning ideas/specs is largely isolated from the consumer economy, and with good reason. In cases where the consumer economy inserts itself in the process — e.g. when Microsoft uses its marketshare to undercut the W3C — most people agree that the end result is detrimental. Openness and the winnowing of ideas is important, but when the decisions involve infrastructure the process needs to be restricted to those with some expertise.