The War Between Quality and Popularity

Star Wars (Sorry for the pun :) )

War is waging in the galaxy. This time it’s not the Rebels against the Empire, or Good vs. Evil.

No, this war is different, and it has been going on ever since products designs companies entities existed.

What I mean is the war between Quality and Popularity.

Let me explain:

(Drumroll, Roman fanfare, then dramatic Anime action trailer a la Mortal Kombat, etc.)

As of May 21st, Google officially declared war on the Apple iPhone.

Sure, there was some teasing here and there for weeks, if not months, but this is serious.

The TOC:

Android vs. the iPhone

So what is this about? Well, Apple has been very successful with the iPhone for a couple of years now, they managed to redefine the Smartphone category and established themselves as the thought leader in smartphone design.

Their whole marketing message behind the iPhone (and now the iPad) can be summed up in one word: “Quality“. Like all of their products. In fact, everything at Apple is about delivering superior quality to their customers.

Now let’s look at Google’s response: According to the Huffington Post, Google’s Vic Gundotra, VP of engineering said:

If you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android.”

Are they saying Android is better? Not really. But they’re touting a lot of features, getting attention and appealing to everyone. Are they claiming quality or design leadership? Not much of that either.

Google’s messaging around Android can be summed up in a very different word: “Open”.

Very different message.

Because Google does not want to cater to a small elite, they want to touch as many people as they can, they want everybody. And “Open” is the easiest way to reach everybody.

Two companies, two very different approaches.

In fact, I’d say that being open and targeting maximum popularity is exactly the opposite than delivering the most high quality product:

Constantin’s Rule of Quality vs. Popularity

1. The higher the quality of something, the more closed and the less popular, or widespread it must become.

2. The more popular and widespread something is, the more limited in terms of quality, the more mediocre it becomes.

At first sight, this theory sounds kinda innocent. Sure, Champagne is just for the elite, who cares?

The key thing though, is that Quality and Popularity cannot exist at the same time, for the same product. The two concepts contradict each other.

Why can something not be widespread and high quality at the same time? Why should quality and popularity exclude each other? Let’s look at Apple and Google again:

Why Quality Inevitably Leads to Exclusion

Steve Jobs’ open letter to Adobe about Flash is a very insightful manifest with lots of stuff between the lines. A few interesting points:

  • A big part of the letter is devoted to pointing out how much Flash as a technology sucks, quality-wise.

  • Another big part of the letter focuses on pointing out how little Flash takes advantage, or even is adaptable to mobile platforms, in particular those that use a touch-based user interface, like the iPhone or the iPad.

  • Then comes the key sentence: “It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps.”

It’s not about hating Flash, or closing up the platform against a competitor. Apple’s reason to block Flash on the iPhone is purely about quality control: Making sure iPhone apps are quality apps.

And Flash on the iPhone would dilute the quality of the iPhone experience by introducing a flurry of mediocre applications and giving developers an excuse to not fully take advantage of the iPhone’s capabilities. And Steve Jobs has a history of blocking unnecessary diversions from innovative platforms.

To put it another way: If you really want high quality, you need to build walls, and decide who to let in and who to keep out.

Apple is an elite night club with a bully at the door, making sure there’s no backdoor to sneak in.

This is not because Apple would be evil, or neglecting the needs of the many Flash programmers out there, or greedy or whatever. It’s just the result of a natural law: The higher the quality you aspire to, the smaller the group becomes that you can invite to the party.

Notice how Apple is barely mentioning Android or Google, despite being in open war with them: They simply focus on delivering the high quality iPhone/iPad experience, and they don’t let them be distracted by anything else.

Speaking of which, let’s look at the other side: Google’s Android.

The Downside of Openness

And here lies the real trap: “Open”, in the sense of “for everyone” really means “for the masses”. And in fact, Android fans quickly point out that Android is overtaking the iPhone in terms of traffic. And I don’t doubt that.

So Android is overtaking the iPhone, more and more handset manufacturers deliver Android as the OS of choice, more and more people use Android phones and eventually, Android becomes the open, wide-spread standard, pushing the iPhone into a high quality niche.

Welcome to mediocrity, Android.

Because that’s what happens if you’re a majority: You define mediocrity.

Let me repeat: The more open you are, the more people join your cause, buy your product, participate in your product’s eco-system and the bigger your group of followers is, the more you’ll head towards mediocrity, because the sheer size of your group becomes the definition of mediocrity: The quality of the average, the lowest common denominator.

Of course, nobody wants to be “mediocre”, right? In fact, Android fans will quickly pull out their shiny new Nexus One handsets and start an argument about why their Android phone is “better” at something, compared to the iPhone and finish with the inevitable “and of course, Apple is evil and that should be reason enough to go with Android”.

But tell me: In which way is Android really better than iPhone in terms of user experience and technology achievement, other than it being more open and more mass-compatible?

The Price of Popularity and the Price of Quality

Like in every good drama, both approaches are legitimate, honest and good-willing, neither side is really evil but both sides have to pay a high price:

  • If you want to be open and popular, you’ll have to please everyone which will dilute quality and you’ll inevitably end up being a mediocre player. Android is the next Windows Mobile.

  • On the other hand, if you pursue the highest quality possible, you’ll have to say no to the people that don’t really help you, you’ll have to exclude those that would dilute your quality, you’ll alienate those that don’t understand you (can you spell one-button-mouse?), and your niche will become smaller and you’ll be less popular as a result.

It’s that simple.

(And don’t worry, both approaches can be successful for a long time.)

Can High Quality Exist With Popularity at the Same Time?

If this happens, it can’t be for long. Again, the iPhone is a good example: Its popularity rose very quickly because almost everybody agreed that it was the best phone on the planet.

But then, it all fell apart: Popularity started demands against Apple: They wanted Flash. Developers wanted to publish their programs without any lengthy and frustrating approval processes. The people demanded cheaper models of the iPhone. And they wanted tits, too.

But Apple simply said: “No.”

Which alienated the many, and created the opportunity for Android: Copy the features that made the iPhone great, pump it all up a notch, then make it available to everyone, in an open way, “fixing” the iPhones closed and proprietary shortcomings. And add some of your own secret sauce, since that’s what you’re actually after.

iPhones for the masses. The Volks-iPhone. But not the highest quality user experience (no link, no longer exists). But isn’t that a small price to pay for “Open”?

Quality and Popularity expel each other like matter and anti-matter in the big bang, and the combination of both is never stable.

And neither party is really “evil” or “wrong”: They’re just two different approaches towards creating, selling and sharing, that happen to contradict each other.

Shades of Gray

Of course what I’m saying is all black and white and the reality is a complex system of shades of gray in between. But I hope you get the picture.

I guess the best way to think of it is like Yin and Yang: Quality and Popularity may be enemies, but they need each other. Most real things are somewhere in between, but they’re strongly drawn towards one or the other.

And they better be: Because if you’re neither the best, nor the most popular, you’re going to have a hard time competing against the rest of the world, which is either better, or more popular than you.

I wish HP good luck (no link, no longer exists).

A Universal Law

Am I turning this blog into an Apple or Android fanboy blog? No. iPhone vs. Android is just one example of my Quality vs. Popularity theory.

In fact, I’m now pretty much convinced that this is a universal law:

Constantin’s Law Of Quality: “Great quality is for the few, mediocrity is for the masses.”

More Examples

With that in mind, a lot of things that we witnessed in the past start making a lot of sense:

  • Windows is mediocrity. And they never had a chance to make it a high quality product, because it was too popular.

  • Music bands tend to revolve around two camps: Cool, innovative and creative manifestations of pure genius vs. indistinguishable, short-lived and boring mass-produce.

  • Cheap, mass-produced and replaceable cars vs. priceless Oldtimers, Lamborghinis and other pieces of four-wheeled art.

  • Wine. Whisky. Chocolate. Fashion. Hifi Stereo Systems. Mankind vs. Insects. Higher Animals vs. Bacteria. You name it.

Since this is a blog centered around Oracle Solaris, you might have already guessed:

I firmly believe Solaris falls under the same rules: The Oracle Solaris family (like the majority of Sun’s and Oracle’s products) are all about superior quality, about being the best, not necessarily the most popular.

In a way, Solaris is very similar to the iPhone. And Ben has figured this one out.

And yes, I too believe that Linux is a mediocre operating system. No offense meant: It’s just the inevitable outcome of its popularity. And quite a while ago, Linus himself figured it out, too.

And yes again, the moment that OpenSolaris becomes the most dominant OS on the planet, I’ll be looking for something more interesting to write about. But until then, there’s a lot of exciting stuff to do. (no link, page no longer exists)

Your Take on Quality vs. Popularity

Now it’s your turn: Does this theory make sense or is it a load of BS? Do you know of examples where great quality could be coupled with great popularity for a long time? What’s your quality philosophy? Or would you rather go with the masses because it’s more popular and less elitist?

Share your thoughts and leave a comment now!


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This is the blog of Constantin Gonzalez, a Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services, with more than 25 years of IT experience.

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