EDITORIAL: When it comes to tech, is it really better to be second?

Does it pay to be first? In the tech world, first should mean best, right? If you create a new market, doesn’t that mean you control the market? It should be a no-brainer.

Yet, time and time again we see that being first isn’t the best thing in tech, that is if you can even come up with a definition of “what it means to be first” and that’s hard to do.

In the 1990s blockbuster Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm explains the march of technology this way:

Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it.

That’s how innovation works. It’s pretty rare than anyone really invents anything out of the blue. Everyone builds on someone else’s work. It’s not a new thing — the telephone was based on the telegraph, the telegraph was based on Hertz’ research… and on and on.

So we say “the iPhone was the first smartphone” but really it wasn’t, because there were Blackberries and Symbian phones and Windows Phones, etc. It was really just the first smartphone that took off like a rocket. It’s the same thing with computers. You may think that your Mac or PC was the first personal computer, but there are plenty of other ones that came before but didn’t really break through. (Read about the early history of these computers here.)

If you can’t even agree on what it mean to be first, how can you say that being first is better?

Answer: you can’t. And it’s true, sometimes it’s better to be second. Apple took the idea of the smartphone and made it accessible to the masses, building not only a phone but a culture. Google took the same idea and brought it to a whole slew of different manufacturers, from the super-low-end phones you find for sale at the drugstore to premium brands like Samsung. Neither one of them was first, but they each conquered the market in their own way.

It’s the same today. The crown of “fastest cell provider” goes back and forth between providers at an alarming rate and in the public’s perception, there’s always someone trying to sell a new, improved plan. Sometimes seeing what the other guy does first, and avoiding his mistakes isn’t such a bad thing.

Look at the rapidly evolving world of streaming TV. Sling TV was first to market but they were absolutely skewered in the press for poor streaming performance, at least for the first six months. Now there have been massive improvements since, but they took the brunt of a lot of people who said that streaming live TV just couldn’t work. By the time DIRECTV NOW, Hulu, and YouTube sailed in, they were free to offer new variations on the streaming live TV idea that allowed each of them to flourish in their own way.

After 36 years of watching the tech scene (starting when I was just a young’un) you see these claims all the time. The only thing you can be sure of is that there will be something newer, better and cheaper tomorrow.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.