TOPICS > Economy

Rocky Road

January 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

PAUL SOLMAN: In the event you’ve been on Mars for the past few months, Microsoft, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of computer software, has successfully launched Windows 95. One goal of the new program is to make the IBM type computers it runs, so-called PC’s, easier to operate. Microsoft’s other goal: To bury rival systems, most notably the one that runs the Apple Macintosh.

MAN: (Apple Commercial) Hey, you want to see some dinosaurs?

CHILD: Yeah, dinosaurs.

MAN: Loading DOS CD into Windows 95.

CHILD: Where are the dinosaurs, dad?

MAN: I’m not sure.

PAUL SOLMAN: Apple has counter-advertised, touting the legendary user-friendliness of its Macintosh, with its Mac operating system.

ANNOUNCER: If you’re looking for a computer that’s easy to use–

MAN: Where are you going to kiddo?

CHILD: To the Crandells; they have a Mac.

ANNOUNCER: (Apple Computer) There’s still only one way to go.

PAUL SOLMAN: Actually, there’s not only one way to go in computer operating systems, at least not yet, and Apple’s lucky there isn’t, for if there were, the one way would probably be PC’s like the IBM running on Microsoft Windows, not the Mac, despite the fact that the Mac technology has widely been considered superior to Microsoft for a decade.

SPOKESMAN: Quick Time VR is a brand new technology that we brought out about a year ago, which allows us to capture environments like this with a standard 35-millimeter camera, bring those images to the computer, and have our computer stitch the images together, and you’d get a 360-degree panoramic scene.

PAUL SOLMAN: Apple’s struggle to compete with Microsoft-driven PC’s may seem like inside baseball for businessmen but it actually provides a key insight for understanding the world of technology around us.

Among the most famous quotes in business history is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “If a man make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

In fact, there are better mousetraps than this one, the ultrasonic pest repeller, for example, yet, this remains the standard. Similarly, the Apple Macintosh may be the better mousetrap in computing, yet, the world has beaten a path to the IBM PC and Microsoft. The question is: Why?

Well, one useful answer is an idea known as path dependency, i.e., once enough people follow a particular path in technology, that path becomes the standard one on which future technology and products depend. Consider keyboard technology.

Using the same text and equally skilled typists, it was demonstrated back on the silent film in the 1930’s that you could type 165 words a minute with the keyboard on the right versus 131 on the left, and which is the one we all use? The apparently slower, older one on the left.

The Dvorak System on the right claims to demand less of a left hand, less row to row finger hopping, no irksome pinky stretches. The arrangement of the letters seems to be more efficient but almost no one uses it.

DON NORMAN, Psychology Professor: Dvorak in the 1930’s did a whole host of human factor studies and made a keyboard that was far superior–too late. Once you have an installed base, once you have tens of millions of people using the typewriter, it’s too expensive to change. And for a small improvement in learning and typing speed, it is not worth it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Don Norman, a long-time psychology professor, is trying to forge new paths for Apple, making its technology ever easier for the consumer. As for Emerson’s quote about the better mousetrap, he’s blunt.

DON NORMAN: Just not true.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s not true because?

DON NORMAN: Because Herbert Simon had invented this wonderful concept of satisfy-sync. When something is satisfactory, you don’t need to have perfection, and so if something is good enough and serves your needs, then people will buy it, and if people find others buying it, then they will buy it, and soon more and more people buy it. And then soon if somebody comes out with a better thing, like the Dvorak keyboard, well, but this one seems good enough, why should I make an effort to switch?

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s arguably the same story with every technology, from the keyboard to the paper clip, when Henry Petroski of Duke has studied.

HENRY PETROSKI, Duke University: What we want the paper clip to do is to sit there, preferably not crease the paper, preferably not leave any permanent marks in the paper, not rust. We’d like it not to come off accidentally. Of course, we wanted it to hold tight while it was on the papers. We don’t want it to tear the paper or, or rip the paper when it’s coming off.

PAUL SOLMAN: The standard Gem clip falls short on each of these counts. Since its invention in the late 1800’s, rust-proof, angular, ribbed, and butterfly clips have all challenged the flawed Gem unsuccessfully.

HENRY PETROSKI: People adapt to technologies that have limitations or have shortcomings, and after a while, we adapt so well that we don’t notice the shortcomings.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or for that matter the computer. Apple was the first to come out with an easy to use graphic operating system. Click on an icon and voila, the machine responds. Microsoft did develop its own graphic operating system, Windows, for the IBM PC, but years late, and a few features short. So why does the well-beaten path now lead to PC’s with Windows and not Macs with the Apple operating system?

Partly, it’s Apple’s own fault. When Apple launched the Mac with its famous 1984 TV ad, it made what is now seen as a strategic business blunder, refusing to license its graphic user-friendly operating system to other manufacturers. By contrast, Microsoft, which owned the software system to run IBM PC’s, licensed its technology to all comers.

Today, 10 years later, Microsoft has some 85 percent of the market. As more software programs are written exclusively for Microsoft-driven PC’s, it becomes more difficult for lawyer Mac users to resist the IBM Microsoft path. Software designer Richard Anders.

RICHARD ANDERS, Software Designer: Normally, if you’re a developer and you look at the numbers and you see that Apple, depending on the market, has anywhere from 10 to maybe on the high end in educational markets or something like that 20 or 30 percent, when you look at those numbers, you start to think, these are very grim; if I’m going to develop software, I want it to be like Willie Sutton said, where the money is, and the money is on the PC side, where everybody else is.

PAUL SOLMAN: If you go into a computer store today, says Anders, there are seven aisles of PC software written for Windows for every aisle of software written for the Mac.

ANNOUNCER: (commercial) Oh, the things people do to decide between two TV shows they want to watch.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, there’s a recent precedent for the Microsoft-Macintosh battle in which the better mousetrap also didn’t win: Sony Betamax versus VHS. Again, Apple’s Don Norman.

DON NORMAN: Yes, Beta was superior to VHS, but there was a deadly marketing war going on, where the other Japanese companies banded together to teach Sony a lesson, because Sony was being too arrogant and trying to retain all of the property rights for Beta.

PAUL SOLMAN: Beta was better, but Matsushita, JVC, and the rest had the better strategy, teaming up to set a common standard, which induced more movies to be put onto VHS, more consumers to buy the machines to play the movies, you get the picture. Microsoft has, in effect, done the same thing, promoted a sharing of strategy to create an industry standard and to be sure, it’s also marketed like mad, throwing its weight around monopoly-like, some would say illegally, to keep the competition at bay.

It’s in this context that the new improved Windows 95 is luring more consumers down the Microsoft path, while Apple, as it happens, has been stumbling, with manufacturing delays, batteries catching on fire, key executives leaving, and talk of a failed merger with IBM.

Now, with newly-reported losses, the company is actually planning significant layoffs. But, says Apple, all is not lost. The company’s counting on loyalty to keep its current customers’ innovation to attract new ones.

SPOKESMAN: Let’s talk about computer voice synthesis.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, since Apple, unlike Microsoft, produces both the software and the hardware for the computers, themselves, it says it can develop and build new ideas into its machines more quickly and cheaply than the competition.

COMPUTER SYNTHESIZER: My name is Bruce. I am generally considered to be one of the best voice synthesizers in the industry today.

PAUL SOLMAN: Also, Apple’s finally sharing, having licensed its operating system to other companies to make cheaper Apple clones, but perhaps Apple’s best hope for the future is the Internet.


PAUL SOLMAN: That high speed network of telephone cables and modems connecting millions of computers worldwide. From company headquarters in Cupertino, California, I’m using Apple Quick Time Conferencing software to play tic tac toe on the Internet with Larry Duffy at the jet propulsion lab in Pasadena over a satellite photo of Mars he just sent me.

SPOKESMAN: You’ve beaten me. I’m overwhelmed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Information sent on the Internet all adheres to a common standard. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Mac or PC at the end of the line, and that gives Apple executives like Don Norman hope.

DON NORMAN: We now suddenly have a way that makes it easy to move around the world and it doesn’t matter what computer you’re using, and if we move that way, and the new Internet is an example of how it happens, then it’s a whole new game again, a completely new game, where the best products can compete and can win.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, Don Norman may be right and then again he may not be. After all, future paths will depend on all sorts of things that haven’t yet happened. But for the present, path dependence can explain a lot about how and why the world of technology around us has taken the shape it has and why the better mousetrap doesn’t necessarily prevail.