I have a tongue-in-cheek observation that I refer to as “Dempski’s Law”, which states that “utility is inversely proportional to hype”. Of the two dimensions, “utility” is fairly straightforward, it is how useful something actually is. “Hype”, by my definition, is the kind of breathless hysteria that goes along with certain products, leading to bold announcements on the covers of magazines that embarrass the editors 18 months later. Certain coworkers of mine are quick to point out flaws in Dempski’s Law, but I think they lack vision, and I’ve told them that. Sure, I could point out all the problems with Kepler’s Law, but I’ll leave that to other blogs and focus on the relationship between utility and hype.
To understand the beauty of Dempski’s Law, consider the common toaster. Here is a product that has a high utility (who doesn’t like toast?), and no hype at all. On the other hand, consider the Segway. Consider the news articles, interviews, and books written about the Segway and the way it was going to change the world. Now, consider the sales of the Segway, or the fact that you can replicate Segway functionality with a 3 wheel scooter like the ones seen in the Frankfurt airport. The toaster and the Segway occupy two ends of the graph representing Dempski’s Law.
Next, consider Java. Some have pointed out that it had a high degree of hype, and is highly useful. I agree, although I contend that the most hyped aspect of Java was the idea that it could run in any browser, which turned out to be either untrue or uninteresting, and that the useful aspects of Java, such as the server side uses, were largely unhyped. On the other hand, Flash, which never really had the wild-eyed press coverage that Java had, was arguably a huge factor in the advent of Rich Internet Applications and sites such as YouTube. I could make similar arguments for Twitter vs. SMS. The latter has orders of magnitude more traffic, the former has orders of magnitude more press coverage. At CES next month, the floor will be covered by hundreds of 3DTVs. Considering the amount of available content and general response to 3D, I’d say 3DTV also adheres to Dempski’s Law.
Yes, you can think of exceptions (I’ll get to that in a bit), but let me defend the law just a bit more. If you step back, you’ll see that the idea isn’t that controversial. Washing machines, while very useful, don’t help sell issues of Wired. Bloggers are drawn to speculate about something new, different, and cool, more than they are to talk about “utility”. Trends in advertising and media in general have shifted toward emphasizing form over function. Just as engineers toiled to support Moore’s Law, the media is working to help me prove Dempski’s Law.
Keep the form over function point in mind when we talk about exceptions. Dempski’s Law is not meant to be a true law any more than Moore’s Law is, but occasionally, people will feel the need to point out exceptions like the iPhone (or iAnything, for that matter). The iPhone was both heavily hyped and heavily useful, but one observation I would make is that in many of these cases, “hype” is an intrinsic part of the product or the brand. Go to the Apple store, and you’ll see a level of fervor that is unmatched in almost any other retail store. Hype is part of Apple’s brand. The same could be said for Linux, which is useful, and is greatly hyped in its own way, but that zeal and passion is somehow part of the Linux brand. How does this happen? A full discussion of Apple’s brand is a long discussion, but I’ll focus on one facet that I call the “Good Enough Observation”. The GEO basically says that once the underlying technology of a given product segment is “good enough”, differentiation in form becomes more important than differentiation in raw technology. Intel-based notebooks are largely technically undifferentiated, but Apple has managed to capture a market with sleek lines, metal bodies, and glowing logos. This is especially true for the many people who buy Apple notebooks and then run Bootcamp. In segments where the GEO holds, many products appear to break Dempski’s Law, but only because the hype is around the non-utilitarian aspects of the product. Apple’s hype is supported by their great design. Linux benefits from a near-religious attitude of many users. So, utility is inversely proportional to hype, unless “hype” is an integral feature of the product.
Have I made a convincing argument for the reality of Dempski’s Law? I don’t know if it matters because I’m only half-serious, but hopefully I’ve planted a seed in your head that will bloom into skepticism every time you see a wide eyed magazine article, or read a sentence that ends with “…,the valley’s hottest new start-up”. Who knows, being aware of Dempski’s Law might one day save you from making a very bad investment.