Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that products are irrelevant; popularity is all in branding and marketing. Us developers (of hardware and software) like to kid ourselves into thinking that we’re the ones who do the “real work,” but really, it’s the sales and marketing people who are the backbone. Apple didn’t “invent” the smartphone, any more than they invented the MP3 player (they were three years late on that), or the laptop, or the slate PC (again, late by several years), or any of the other stuff they’ve been successful with in the past ten years.. They’ve just been able to corner the “sexy” market, through good advertising and branding. I think that since Jobs returned to the company, they also payed more attention to quality and product polish, and were willing to sacrifice volume in the increased costs that often incurred; he had the same attention to detail at NeXT, although he failed to identify the right market for that platform. But I really think what makes a successful product is the cult of personality.

Other examples:

  • Microsoft. There is almost always been a better competing product to whatever Microsoft is selling, but Microsoft managed to capture the Business sector with its early and intimate association with IBM. Even OS/2, an arguably better OS, couldn’t wrestle that crown away, and that’s because they didn’t have Bill Gates, not because it was a technically inferior product.
  • Linux. Minix predates Linux, and had the potential to be as successful as Linux, and can be argued to have a better architecture, but Tanenbaum had different priorities and isn’t, I dare suggest, the personality that Linus is. Or, if you don’t like microkernels, BSD. Same thing: they don’t lack technology, they lack Linus.
  • Java. There are many at least equivalent languages out there, even if you restrict yourself to the OO space, but none of them had Sun behind it.  Sun pushed Java aggressively. I’m not going to credit McNeally or Gosling directly for that; I don’t think there was a personality behind that one, just aggressive and persistent marketing.

History is littered with the detritus of better products that lost to inferior products, simply because of better marketing.