Arguing that an idea or product has merit because it has popular support is one of the oldest argument tactics around. It’s also one of the most flawed. Does McDonald’s have the best hamburger because they sell billions? Is a Toyota better than a Ferrari because one is far more common than the other? Is Britney Spears a better musician than Mozart, who you never hear on the radio? The counter-examples continue ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

Why does this occur? My guess is that it’s a confusion between cause and effect. Quality is often, but not always, a cause of popularity. If two products are functionally identical, then the one with better quality should become more popular over time. The problem with this theoretical situation is, well, that it’s theoretical. Two products are never the same. There’s different marketing, branding, advertising, consumer perception of company, packaging, features, design and price. All of these factors, and a few that I’ve left out, contribute to what the consumer will buy.

Even professional journalists can make the mistake of arguing that popularity indicates some inherent quality. Take a look at this article in Forbes about Vista adoption:

The Mac, for all of Apple’s snazzy advertising, has less than 1.6% share of the PC installed base. Linux, for all of the millions of column inches devoted to its wondrous abilities (many of those lines by yours truly), holds about 2.5% share. (All figures are from Gartner Dataquest.) No wonder nobody at Microsoft seems too upset about the bad reviews of Vista. First of all, it’s easy (and fashionable) to talk trash about Microsoft. And it’s all too easy to overlook Microsoft’s achievements, like making operating system software that works well enough and is priced well enough to attract 96% of the world’s PC users.

The article appears to say that Windows XP spread because of the “choice” of customers. Quick question: do you think most people actually choose their operating system, or just get whatever came on their machine?

Did you choose the operating system on your phone? Your TV? For the non-geeks out there, no. You got whatever OS the manufacturer put on there (if you bought it) or whatever your IT department put on there (if your company bought it for you).

So, the real question becomes “Why did the manufacturer/IT department install that particular OS?”. There’s a long, sordid history on this, but there are a few obvious reasons:

  • If the computer manufacturer is Apple, they will install an Apple OS which supports their company — their definition of best.
  • If your company already runs Windows, the next computer they give you is likely to run Windows. Your IT admin will give you whatever is cheapest to operate, maintain and train you on — their definition of best.
  • If it comes from a PC manufacturer like Dell, they will include whatever sells the most and has the most profit — their definition of “best”. Notice that I didn’t say security, features, reliability or user interface. They will focus on what sells the best, and the reason it sells doesn’t really matter (except, perhaps, to forecast what will sell the best in the future).

The question of what operating system is “best” is too general and doesn’t really make sense. Give me specifics: Fastest. Most reliable. Best price/performance. Most easy-to-use. Most compatible. Gimme some details!

Don’t presume that qualities like market share or usage is a direct reflection of end-user choice. Sure, products can become popular because they have the best quality. Or, they can become popular because they have a lot of advertising. Or they have no competitors. Or because their name is first in the alphabet. Or people have inertia and don’t want to switch. There’s a lot of reasons. It’s a fallacy to think that just because something happened/was elected/was decided, it was the “best” decision. Sometimes things just happen. Look at a product’s popularity and ask why.

In the case of PCs, popularity is a reflection of the choice by the providers (manufacturers) and the people making the purchasing decisions (IT departments). In most cases, users are just along for the ride. The vast, vast majority of operating system sales are made to manufacturers and corporations. Not many people buy Windows off the shelf at Best Buy.

Rewording the article to say “Windows is the best platform for users because it has the most market share, the most applications and is compatible with the most devices” makes sense. Claiming it is the best simply because it attracted a lot of people doesn’t.

Of course, this reasoning may not stop screaming fans from declaring their system the “best” because it is widely used. It will just prevent you from believing them.