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May 14, 2008

Things That Everybody Knows

I saw an article today about how the Smart ForTwo (that tiny car you see around) had earned top marks in safety tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Despite this, the Institute decided to disqualify the car from potentially earning its "Top Safety Pick" designation because it is just too dang small. "All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better," says the president of the Institute.

The idea that bigger, heavier cars are safer is something that everybody just "knows". The fact that it's actually false doesn't seem to matter much. Malcolm Gladwell pointed this out a few years ago (he even quoted Clotaire Rapaille!). It's true that in a collision between a small car and a large car it is safer to be in the large car, but small cars do so much better at avoiding accidents that you are much safer in a small car. The result is that the driver of a Volkswagen Jetta, say, is about half as likely to die in an accident as the driver of a Ford Explorer. So now we have the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, who even a hardened cynic would presume is trying to save lives, instead giving advice that will cost lives, just because he is going with a fact that everybody "knows".

Here's another fact that everybody knows: applications are migrating from the desktop to the web. It must be true because I keep reading it everywhere, for example in this Business Week article about Microsoft's battles with Google: "So far, the shift to online software is more of a drip than a flood. The programs often don't work as smoothly as, say, Microsoft Office, and they can require some tech savvy to use. But the shift seems sure to accelerate in the years ahead." The shift is sure to accelerate--just like it's sure that big heavy cars are safer than small light ones.

Let's draw an analogy. Imagine that public transit were free, like it should be. Now consider public transit vs. cars. Public transit (in this scenario) doesn't cost anything because it is paid for by a combination of ads and other sources of money that exist for their own purposes (such as government subsidies designed to reduce road maintenance costs). Public transit also doesn't require the user to do a lot of upfront planning, such as buying a car--they just hop on when they need to go somewhere. And at first blush, public transit looks a lot like what cars provide--it takes people places without undue exposure to the elements. This starts to look like a classic Innovator's Dilemma, with car being pushed hopelessly upmarket by current owners' incessant demand for better cupholders, allowing the "good enough" public transit to displace it.

So free public transit will displace cars, right? Of course people know it won't, and Toyota would not respond to the notion of free public transit by investing heavily in its own bus service; executives know that although on the surface free public transit looks better than a private car, if you dig a bit deeper you will find a variety of ways in which cars are better--enough that you know that in most cities, public transit adoption will hit an upper limit fairly quickly.

So now you have free software, which is supported by ads and other money sources, and doesn't require any upfront planning--the user can go to the website whenever they want (they can also save their data online, but this is a feature that a standalone app could offer fairly trivially). And on the surface, a word processor on the web looks a lot like a standalone word processor. But my feeling is that when you dig deeper, you discover a bunch of reasons why a standalone word processor is actually vastly superior to a web-based one, and although the web-based one will gain some adoption, it will never replace it. But, as often happens with the tech industry, people writing about software don't seem to have the equivalent of the gut feel that would cause any automotive writer to reject the idea that public transit could displace the private car. The hue and cry about the lightweight-application-with-data-stored-centrally replacing the standalone application is now well into its second decade; I expect it to continue to be something that everybody "knows" for the foreseeable future.

Posted by AdamBa at May 14, 2008 10:40 PM

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What was most interesting was the reference to the Clotaire Rapaille blog. Since there is no point in commenting on a 2 year old blog, some of my comments will be on that one. One thing Adam should have distinguished is the difference between design and styling. So much of what he refers to is the latter. A very minor case in point: I discarded an empty Crest toothpaste tube this morning, saving the cap which is now several years old. Why? My wife buys toothpaste by price and some years ago Crest starting putting caps on their tubes that must be close to 2 inches in diameter. They are several times as clumsy to use as the old 1/2 kind, but the marketroids must have decided that they present a more pleasing appearance. Perhaps the buyers thought the old kind looked like some microcephalic idiot.

If Vista is any example of the new Microsoft emphasis on design issues, I can only pray they return to the old paradigm. I personally paid over $100 to get the machine I am typing this on "downgraded" to XP. But I have heard that MS is pulling the plug on XP now. Maybe I will finally take the plunge and move on to Linux.

Adam has, but didn't mention, a report I gave him from American Scientist showing chances of dying in a crash for all (well, many) makes and models of car. The Honda Civic was around the middle. The Honda van was at the extreme safe end and all truck-based SUVs were at the opposite extreme. So it is not, strictly speaking, small car vs. big car, since the Honda van is pretty big. Also, the data don't show the effect, assuming there is one, of the kind of person who buys a monster SUV.

Posted by: Marble Chair at May 15, 2008 06:25 AM

Just a minor note and opinion... the bigger cars are only safer because there are bigger cars on the road. If most of us were driving around in tiny cars then would we really have to worry (as much) about the really big ones crushing us like an acordian?

Oh well, bigger=safer, time to get get me an 18-wheeler to meet safety standards.

Posted by: Cress at May 16, 2008 12:10 PM