Confirmation Bias explained in terms of Silverlight & HTML5.

Today I want to talk about HTML5 & Silverlight specifically around the existence of what I would class as "Confirmation Bias". First, lets look at the Wikipedia definition of this term.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or my side bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and/or recall have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a stronger weighting for data encountered early in an arbitrary series) and illusory correlation (in which people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

The Setup.

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One does not have to travel far in the digital news space before one see is a case of this tendency being played out. The way it plays out is companies like Microsoft, Adobe, Google and Apple are all touting the HTML5 existence as being the right path forward.  Immediately after this path has been presented a flurry of activity within the comment streams begin to occur with rants like "HTML is compatible, boo hiss at plugins" etc.  These rants are at the end of the day somewhat truthful as arguments put forward that HTML is probably the most purist form of technology on earth is somewhat in a sense correct – well to be specific, its really the only technology that has had absolute universal agreement on adoption.

At present, these rants typically do not zero in on what the heart of the HTML5 bias parasite is really attaching to. It is that the perception if more people adopt a given technology you in turn gain a wider pool of acceptance and stronger monetization models flow onwards. That is to say that if HTML5 were to be 100% compatible on all browsers / desktops tomorrow therefore we all stand a greater chance of success over the current routes which are a mix of device technology bets through to a skirmish in and around desktop development strategies.
The Reality.

The truth of the matter is that HTML5 is a placebo that the industry is being suckered into embracing – hear me out before you froth at the mouth of disbelief. A placebo such as this is given to us all because we are living under the assumption that friction for adoption of a technology is too hard and secondly that with HTML5 the browsers will all agree on a universal standard thus we are back to a baseline of user experience one can all bask & share in. Let me clarify these two points in more detail and how ill-conceived they are.

The Adoption.

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Adoption firstly is a developer discussion not a consumer discussion as take Silverlight for example. Silverlight was a new technology, we had zero adoption at the start and it was just a name of a concept when it was first announced to the world. We knew straight away we had a long marathon ahead of us and we would often say things like "it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon" as we weathered, the adoption storm(s) (mainly Flash vs. Silverlight). Immediately we knew that the core focus of our strategies around seeding this technology was developers, developers, developers – we had to convince every developer around the world that Silverlight was everywhere, no friction attached! In short, we needed to stimulate the illusion of what makes confirmation bias so powerful.

Many would now argue that consumers are not interested in installing plugins, it is not just developers it’s the "soccer mums" at home who are not technology savvy. Roughly over 100million installs of Silverlight occurred during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and consumers of the site(s) would spend around on average 20mins+ viewing time (broke records as all other sites at the time had around 3-5mins) so before we use the "soccer mum" argument, understand, technology today isn’t as scary as the 1990’s once was. That is to say people online will install a virus if you convince them that the content they are about to get post install is worth a click of a mouse button as again, developers, developers, developers oh and marketers.  We proved developers are the ones that need convincing, not what they use as an excuse for hesitation in around adoption – confirmation bias.

The Browsers.

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Browsers secondly are and will continue to race to the HTML5 parity finish line. At MIX 2011 you saw Dean & Steve give the "oh isn’t that interesting" competitive shallow comparison between Google Chrome and Internet Explorer 9, specifically on how Internet Explorer 9 is "better" now (developers, developers, developers).  The race has only just begun and you are already seeing the competitive knife fights begin, like two old enemies taking short, fast but deep cuts at one another (Google may respond or may not). Parity is the false promise now and it has got everyone transfixed on the innocence of it all – technology placebo!

Taking a step back from the discussion, one should consider the next steps post parity, that is to say if tomorrow all browsers were absolutely in line with one another around HTML5 then well, what’s the differentiator left? Speed? Performance? Extensions…  The browsers have to grow in terms of market share and Internet Explorer team aren’t ones to sit idle and do their jobs for the greater good of the people! The Google Chrome teams are made up of a lot of ex-Internet Explorer team so that inherited competitive DNA will definitely come out as well. The fork will occur, and I predict Windows 8 will be such fork.

The browsers will eventually make extras adaptable to the developer’s needs, things like Google Gears or Internet Explorer’s "Slices" are all essentially plugins that dip ones toes in the water to guage reaction from the developers, developers, developers.  Imagine if Internet Explorer 10 was on 80% of the world’s Windows based machines and you had HTML parity but still stuck in the ye olde JavaScript/CSS wasteland(s). The Internet Explorer team come out with a strategy in around allowing you to write Desktop & Device experiences that are universal but the tax is you got to use a special additive set of API’s to get it working (wrapped in some IF/ELSE statements for detection of Windows 8 devices/desktops). Do you pay that tax? And aren’t we not back to where we are today? A fork in experiences.

HTML5 vs Silverlight isn’t about which of the two is better, its which one can easily sell to developers, developers, developers. If this confirmation bias continues, what you will see is Silverlight shifted from being a plugin and more as being a additive solution to the HTML5 experience promise but with less emphasis on its existence and more on Internet Explorer 9 & Windows 8.

The Burden of Proof.

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Want proof? Silverlight has always given up its annual numbers of installation every year it’s been at MIX – I was told today by an internal source that numbers have dropped!. It’s something inside the Silverlight team we used to agonize over as to how we can hide the stalled uptake but inflate it just a little to convince people that it’s winning! – This year, no numbers were announced.  We did see many Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer discussions though but hey, it is a web conference right? (Is that why no Windows Presentation Foundation discussions occurred this year? As opposed to years before?)

My point is simple.  As a developer you’re in the seat of power & influence, understand your role in this equation as once all become a little more collectively alert as to what’s going on the you in turn can shape what happens next. Corporations like Microsoft, Adobe, Google and Apple are more preoccupied with both Advertising Penetration stats. They would do whatever it takes, to get those numbers high, so play them do not let them play you.

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