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Opinion: “Worse is Better”


“The Rise of Worse is Better”[1] is an excerpt from a presentation by Richard P. Gabriel.[2] The entire presentation is about the programming language Lisp.[3] However, a smaller part contains an important observation with broader applications.

Today, the following questions are subject to conversation: why has Google+ plateaued and Facebook continued to rise? Why don’t Microsoft’s search initiatives win big against Google? How can PHP be both infamous and ubiquitous? How did WordPress become a legitimate CMS?

These are complex questions with many different angles. Passionate arguments have been formed for every side. Economics, sociology, and evolution often lend their ideas to the answers. And for all of this discussion, the voices of computer scientists are less often heard.[4]

Twenty years ago, Richard P. Gabriel viewed Lisp as being ideologically superior to the programming language C. Yet, C strongly pervaded. To explain this he surmised that, “worse is better.” That the less sincere but more palatable design will prevail.

This may help to explain why PHP, a “blight” upon programming,[5][6][7][8] has gained such widespread adoption. Or, why WordPress has been so well received as a CMS. Or, maybe even, why more people tend to use PCs than Macs.

None of these winners were very masterfully or artfully conceived. Their growths have been sprawling ones. Their critics are vocal. The competition is stiff.  Yet, they’ve successfully propagated into relative mainstays.

In Facebook’s S1 filing,[9] Mark Zuckerberg described this as part of the “hacker way;” continual improvement through iteration. The phrase used in the filing, “done is better than perfect,” sounds similar to the phrase, “worse is better.” The difference is that Mark Zuckerberg embraces this idea. Richard P. Gabriel laments it, describing it as a “virus.”

“The lesson to be learned from this is that it is often undesirable to go for the right thing first. It is better to get half of the right thing available so that it spreads like a virus.”

“Once the virus has spread, there will be pressure to improve it” … “but users have already been conditioned to accept worse than the right thing.”

However, if you measure success in dollars then the way forward is clear. It isn’t the right thing…

[In the interest of full disclosure: I learned how to program with PHP. I think WordPress is a good blog platform and poor CMS, compared to Drupal. I do not use Facebook or Google+. “I am a PC.” I think Pepsi tastes better than Coke but because of brand loyalty I would pick Coca-Cola(TM) out of the two. My favorite color is blue.]

  1. The Rise of Worse is Better:
  2. Richard P. Gabriel:
  3. Lisp (programming language):
  4. “The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them.” -Thoreau
  5. PHP: a Fractal of Bad Design:
  6. The PHP Singularity:
  7. PHP Must Die:
  8. Why PHP Sucks:
  9. Registration Statement on Form S-1:
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