Let's not penalize most failure (a riff off Google's Chrome OS)

My friend Jamie notes that, on the basis of what he saw in a demo of Google’s Chrome OS yesterday, it’s going nowhere. I think this is the wrong way to look at it, for two reasons: first, it’s important to get something out there, and second, more generally: we, as a society, overly penalize failure.

Before I start, I should note that I know essentially nothing about the Chrome OS. I haven’t watched any demos of it. I know that it’s a stripped-down OS for use on netbooks. I’ve read John Gruber’s perfectly sensible point that many of us have one primary computer — a laptop or a desktop — along with a telephone (like the iPhone) that looks like a crippled computer if you squint at it right. As Gruber puts it: maybe you don’t need two cars; maybe you just need a car and a bicycle. People get along very well with a car and a bicycle.

My point here has little to do, though, with the substantive claim against Chrome OS. I don’t actually care a bit about the Chrome OS. Jamie links to some pundit’s piece, wherein the pundit claims that Chrome OS is “doom[ed] … to the dustbin of history.” Pundits need to say things like this; their jobs are to be provocative. I think it’s quite silly to take a position like that, however, when the record of pundit prognostication is so poor. Hell, the first version of Google’s Android phone interested approximately no one. Compared to the iPhone, the G1 was a flop. We’re on to the Droid, now, which people really seem to love. To suggest that the Chrome OS is dead on arrival is to suggest that it won’t improve. Windows 1.0, anyone?

Which gets to my real point, which is that you have to start somewhere. What I’ve learned from working at a startup, and from reading Stealing MySpace, is that it’s far better to get something out there, essentially no matter how broken it is, than to take forever to produce something stellar. A few reasons:

  1. By setting a firm, soon-to-arrive release date for a product, you force yourself to get something done. As they say: If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would happen. Get something out there, then improve it.

  2. By offering a real, tangible product, you give your customers or potential customers a basis for criticism and comment. Now instead of dreaming about an ideal Google OS that they can attach all their hopes and dreams to, people have the real thing in front of them and can ask for specific improvements. (This is a point that lies somewhere within The Mythical Man-Month, which I need to review.)

    There’s a related point in here, by the way, about how to manage software organizations: if you design in a vacuum, with no actual customers to examine your product, you’re going to build something that no one wants. If you design for one customer, you’re going to find that the second customer wants something different from the first and you’ll need to redesign anyway. The Mythical Man-Month argues that you’re going to throw away your first design anyway, so don’t bother over-designing it. All of which suggests that if Chrome OS is undercooked — and again, I don’t know whether it is, and don’t care — that’s exactly as it should be.

  3. I’ll argue this next point by way of an example from my own life. I had been considering upgrading my iPhone to the latest, greatest, highest-capacity version from the 8-gig 3G I have now. Google’s Droid and Palm’s Pre aren’t good enough yet, so far as I can tell, to make me switch away from the iPhone, but they are making me delay my upgrade decision. Maybe there aren’t any phones I want to upgrade to right now, but do I want to lock myself into another two-year AT&T contract when Google or Palm might produce something really stellar before that contract would expire?

    Maybe the Chrome OS isn’t good enough to sway many purchasing decisions right now, but it’s out there now and will probably improve over time. As it does so, it may drive a wedge into the market: people will hold off until they see what Chrome OS 2.0 or 3.0 is all about. This is the strategy that Microsoft — and, I presume, most any smart software company — has been using for years; it’s called “vaporware” when a rival is doing it, “good marketing” when you’re doing it. Chrome OS may be strategic vaporware, and Google would be entirely right to create such a thing.

  4. There’s also the notion of a “disruptive technology.” I’m told that The Innovator’s Dilemma has noticed a classic pattern with certain technologies; here I find MySQL a convenient example to keep in mind, though it breaks down when Sun buys MySQL and Oracle buys Sun. The pattern goes like this: there’s some entrenched player (think Oracle) that makes a massive, hardened, massively supported behemoth of a product that people pay premium prices for. Then along comes the little guy, producing a product that is — from the big player’s perspective — crippled and puny and not worth worrying about. Even better from the big player’s perspective, the little guy appeals to the big player’s most troublesome customers — those that don’t generate a lot of revenue and that generate a ton of support calls. So the Oracles of the world gladly dispense with their little customers. (Think of MySQL back when it only had MyISAM tables which didn’t guarantee that your data would be there after a power outage, didn’t support foreign-key constraints, and generally only functioned as a fast indexing engine on top of a bare filesystem.)

    Now the little guy has some customers. They’re little customers, but they’re customers. So now the little guy can build a product based on feedback — which it happily and quickly does, because there isn’t much code to change or much of an organizational battleship to turn. So now the little guy improves his product a bit and shaves off a little more of the big guy’s customers. The big guy still doesn’t notice; the little guy remains beneath his radar. Bit by bit, the little guy cuts into the big guy’s market; by the time the big guy notices, it’s too late.

    We’ve been thinking about Defeating Microsoft Windows for a very long time. It’s pretty clear to me, by now, that that’s just the wrong way to think about it. If I had to wager, I would suspect the Chrome OS is Google’s way of acknowledging that that’s the wrong way to think about it. Google isn’t going to destroy Windows with the Chrome OS, but maybe they’ll take a little bit away from the low end of the market. They probably won’t defeat IE with their Chrome browser, but they’ll insert a little wedge in that market; whatever happens, Google cannot be locked out of the browser market. Microsoft may lose a few customers here and there who decide that they don’t need a desktop computer and can do all they need with a browser, an email client, and a mobile phone. Little by little, companies pick off little corners of the computer market. Maybe Microsoft learns how to respond to these: maybe Windows Mobile goes somewhere; maybe IE becomes a capable browser; or maybe it doesn’t. But the point is that the direct assault on Windows has been tried and has failed. One promising approach to defeating Microsoft is to attack indirectly.

For all these reasons, even if Chrome OS is a failure, it may be valuable. As a society, we take a hard line on failure. We venerate Apple and excoriate Xerox. We praise Facebook and condemn Friendster. In the intellectual realm, I’ve seen praise of Gödel and condemnation of Bertrand Russell. In some senses it’s just that we do so; in many others, it’s not. Each generation of an idea learns from the failures that preceded it. The generation that succeeds generally could not have known where to step had it not watched the missteps of preceding, failing generations. We know that Newton succeeded by standing on the shoulders of giants, but don’t always realize that they were giant failures. And we’re better because they were.

3 thoughts on “Let's not penalize most failure (a riff off Google's Chrome OS)

  1. I don’t expect Chrome OS to change my world directly, but I hope that it will force PC users to start asking tough questions like “why doesn’t my PC take 7 seconds to turn on?”

  2. I agree with your two points: one, that software companies are wise to release early and iterate regularly, and, two, that our society over-penalizes (and undervalues) failure. I also wouldn’t go so far as to say that Chrome OS will necessarily be a failure. But if it’s going to be a success, Google will need to change some of the fundamental operating principles behind the system.

    Ultimately I think the problem is that they are not really solving a problem. Whereas Wave tries to solve a bunch of problems inherent in email and instant messaging, I don’t hear anyone complaining that their boot up time is too slow and that they’d be willing to give up saving their documents locally to make it faster.

    On the flip side, I do think they are going to have trouble convincing people that a computer that only has a browser is worth purchasing, if you can get past the fact that most people don’t even know what a browser is anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4MwTvtyrUQ

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