Sunday, February 10, 2008

Path Dependency & Loss of Novelty

Here's a mini assignment I had to do for my latest class, Human Computer Interaction. The assignment was to take these two readings and discuss the concepts of path dependency and loss of novelty.


Path dependency and loss of novelty create barriers to technological innovation, as demonstrated by King, Grinter, and Pickering in their analysis of the Internet’s development (Kiesler, 1997) and can also be seen in operating system (OS) development as outlined by Stephenson (Stephenson, 2008).

Loss of novelty, as described by King et al, refers to the passing of excitement surrounding technological discovery, and while they apply this concept to the developers of technology, it can be extended to the users of technology. Just as a sense of novelty can be a leading incentive for technology innovation, it can also be an incentive for technology adoption – but the inverse is also true. A sense of novelty can lead individuals to overcome various barriers (for example, costs, learning curve, time) to use and adapt new technology, such as when home computers were first introduced many people eagerly explored using them, but this willingness to explore has been replaced by utilitarian concerns with accomplishing tasks at hand. Thus, while Stephenson is critical of the average consumer loyal to Windows, despite superior or cheaper alternatives, such as Linux or BeOS, loss of novelty helps explain why people do not want to learn how to use a new operating system.

Developers do not like to re-invent the wheel, as there are few financial or reputational incentives and, as Stephenson states, “nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than the duplication of effort” (Stephenson, 2008). Having worked as a programmer, I can attest that the thrill of a new challenge is among the greatest incentives. Much of operating system code is foundational code; although it is not perfect, it is often re-used or third party and offers little challenge to developers, who, as a result, tend to move on to other technological fields. Development of Linux has continued, not, I believe, due to a sense of novelty, but rather due to a commitment to open source ideals, cost-effectiveness, or a dislike of Microsoft.

Even if developers were inclined to innovate with operating systems, they would encounter another barrier, the widespread path dependency to Microsoft Windows. Path dependency happens when “early technologies becom[e] so established in use that they cannot be displaced by newer, and clearly better, technologies” (Kiesler, 1997, p. 30). This can be seen with the Internet where temporary conventions became immovable standards. Innovation does not progress with OS because Microsoft’s virtual monopoly means they do not have a compelling business reason to innovate and other companies face an almost impenetrable market. Other companies add to this path dependency by building their software to support only Windows, and thus innovations other OS companies may offer are further marginalized.

As mentioned earlier, users do not want to take the time to learn a new OS. Users also do not want to incur the costs or risks of switching to a new system that may not be compatible with their existing software and files. These are examples of physical path dependencies, but mental ones exist for users as well. Stephenson notes how both Apple and Microsoft have through sophisticated branding managed to get “people to believe in, and to pay for, a particular image” (Stephenson, 2008). By tying people’s sense of self to their operating system, the prowess of the operating system is subservient to maintaining that identity.

While there have been great technological innovations in the creation of the Internet and operating systems, both have had innovation stymied by path dependency and loss of novelty.


King, J. L., Grinter, R. E., & Pickering, J. M. (1997). The rise and fall of Netville: The saga of a cyberspace construction boomtown in the great divide. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet (pp. 3-33). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Stephenson, N. (2008). In the beginning was the command line. Retrieved January 29, 2008, from

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