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Tipping points in software adoption and the default option

A landmark event has recently occurred in the ponderous shuffle of the global internet browser market – how recently depends on whose statistics one trusts – but no matter what, the once unassailable bulk that is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has finally lost its outright majority, dipping just under 50% usage worldwide.

For a few years now, by most subjective and objective standards, the most commonly used alternatives – Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera – have been superior to the mammoth that is Internet Explorer – they’re more standards compliant, more secure, faster, more extensible and customizable, and so on and so forth. Why then, have adoption rates been so slow? There certainly have not been the sudden mass adoption of a product as suggested by the discussion of tipping points in class, so it suggests that the driving forces to switch for the vast majority of users is quite low.

There are both positive and negative externalities for the size of the userbase of an internet browser. A browser having more users speeds its development, and increases its overall trustworthiness. However, a larger userbase makes a browser a more significant target for hackers – no sufficiently complicated software is free of security flaws, and more users incentivizes hacking and therefore – this is the perennial problem of Internet Explorer. The net effect of an increasing userbase is most likely positive to the mainstream user, however, as knowledge of the negative effect is generally limited to more technical users. The magnitude of the influence, however, is quite low.

Daniel.Cardenas. Creative Commons. Wikipedia.

It’s an interesting exercise to attempt to apply an effective price to products that carry no monetary price tag. Internet Explorer is effectively free since it is included with Windows, which globally is still the dominant OS included with new computers. All of the other browsers require the minor effort of browsing to the relevant website, downloading, and installing a new piece of software. To most of us youths and geeks, this is a trivial exercise – well below the reserve price for a replacement for Internet Explorer. However, we underestimate the power of the default option for most people. The presentation of too many choices with not enough contextual information causes people to act seemingly irrationally, and ignore potential measurable benefits because act of choosing itself carries an additional cost, as discussed in this article by psychology Prof. Barry Schwartz in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/12/opinion/12schwartz.html, and in his TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html.

The vast majority of the population simply has no real vested interest in switching from the default option without some private information – most likely a rave review from a close contact – their reserve prices are extremely low, even to the point that even if they are occasionally frustrated with the default, the mental and temporal costs of acquiring a replacement are above their reserve prices. These are the consumers to the far right of the self fulfilling expectations curve, and they add significant inertia to the browser share market, damping the rate at which users switch to alternatives.

It’s also notable that IE users are also by far the slowest to adopt new versions – IE still requires input from the user to update to the latest version, and it seems that the remaining 50% of Internet users are the very ones that are reluctant to switch: http://www.netmagazine.com/features/developers-guide-browser-adoption-rates (an excellent survey of the rates of update adoption among the various browsers).

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