The Trap of ‘First’

Keith Houston, I Love Typography: The Prints and the Pauper. Otherwise sound history of printing that falls into the classic rhetorical trap: can we call Johannes Gutenberg the “father” of printing despite the fact that he didn’t invent movable type?

This is the same sort of rhetorical trap that lots of otherwise smart people in technology fall into all the time. I call it the Trap of ‘First’: the assumption that just because you are first to think of, or even implement, something, you should get special credit and deserve special success.

I should know about the Trap of ‘First’, as I was a longtime victim of it. For years I believed, like many Apple fans, that the slew of inventions that came out of Apple during the late 1980s and early 1990s made them more deserving of market success than Microsoft. “But they did it first!” I’d howl: about window based operating systems, computer video, smooth on-screen type, really anything you can imagine.

What I’ve come to understand is that there’s as much value generated in innovating on someone’s solution than in (merely) inventing it in the first place. Look at the iPod. There were certainly other MP3 players on the market. But the unique combination of great UI and (most importantly) the iTunes Store made the iPod the first one that really filled the customer’s need.

Houston points out that early Chinese innovations in printing preceded Gutenberg by hundreds of years. He correctly also points out that they were unwieldy (requiring over 60,000 unique woodblocks), produced poorly legible pages (thanks to the water-based Chinese calligraphic ink that didn’t adhere well to the woodblocks), and generally uneconomical (only printing on one side of the page thanks to the delicate Chinese paper; woodblocks had to be cut by hand rather than cast from reusable metal molds).

Gutenberg’s press, incorporating innovations not only in movable type but also in creating methods to mass produce it and create legible pages with it, was not the first, but I’d argue that is beside the point. The point is not to be first, but to solve enough of the problem that your solution is worthwhile. Hence why “first mover advantage” … often isn’t.