Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Twice-As-Good Rule

Microsoft recently launched MSN Virtual Earth, their response to the hugely popular Google Maps: the reaction from the blogosphere was a mixture of polite approval, yawns, and howls at outdated imagery and lacking international support. Why, as Robert Scoble put it, “the tidal wave of negative publicity”?

Because Virtual Earth is playing catchup to Google Maps. When you’re introducing a technology or product intending it to supplant existing competition, there’s one vital rule of thumb that applies:

If you want to be adopted enthusiastically, you’ve got to be twice as good as what’s gone before.

Put more bluntly: you’ve got to wow people.

Google came late to mapping, but they came in strong. Google Maps, with its huge, clear maps, its click-and-drag usability, and its responsiveness, was clearly hugely better than existing mapping websites. It wowed people; and they loved it.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, this means that Virtual Earth, to be received enthusiastically, needs to be twice as good as Google Maps. Well, it’s good; in some ways, it’s better than Google Maps. But it’s not twice as good; and that’s not good enough to wow people away.

Google are, of course, no strangers to wow. Google search wowed us when it was introduced; spare, fast, and amazingly good at bringing back relevant results, it was hugely better than Altavista, Lycos, and the other search engines of the time. Everyone else has been playing catch-up since, but nobody’s yet made the twice-as-good leap that would have them replacing Google. Looking like Google or acting like Google isn’t good enough; you need to be much better than Google.

Apple’s iPod was twice as good as the competition when it launched: sleeker, sexier, easier to use, hugely more capacious. But now new competitors have to be twice as good as the iPod; a difficult task.

CD is twice as good as cassette tape and vinyl, at least to most of us; now it’s all but supplanted them. But SACD isn’t twice as good as CD, so it remains a minority format. DVD is twice as good as VHS, and now videotape’s disappearing.

Windows 95 was twice as good as Windows 3.1: by dropping Program Manager, File Manager, and the clunky window-within-window metaphor, Windows 95 was the first in the Windows line that was actually easy to use. Have subsequent Windows versions been twice as good as their predecessors? Probably not—although Windows XP does finally seem to have made Windows stable. And this is the problem that Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Vista faces: to be received enthusiastically, it has to be seen as twice as good as Windows XP. Again, a difficult task.

And nobody gets particularly excited about PCs, because pretty much all PCs are pretty much the same. Despite Scoble’s evangelism, the Tablet PC format is not getting much buzz. Why? Because to most people, a Tablet PC doesn’t seem twice as good as a laptop.


Absolutely, 100% true.

I assert nearly the same thing regarding MSN Search. Its about 1/2 way into that rant. I start by saying 10 times, but then realize that 10 is a bit much. I say 2 times is enough.
True, yes...for hardware upgrades (computers, music players) and definately for new formats such as super audio CD. However, I'd attach a minor caveat regarding software. To get great buzz in the blogsphere, a new software product probably does need represent a clear (2x?) advance, as does the casual user. For the hardcore users of a product, who relay on it daily I think people switch if the barriers (cost and convenience) are low enough--even if a product is only slightly better. Is windows XP twice as good as 2000? No, but if XP is cheap enough I'll move, even if its only for the redesigned start office 2003 twice as good as XP? No, but it does offer some improvements (esp in Outlook), and added up, small improvements can be worth a lot if they remove some daily frustrations...but it comes down to cost/convenience.
Well said!