The Best Products to Come in Second Place

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Typically, consumer and retail loyalty goes to the best products. As the cliche goes: Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Sometimes, however, the best just isn't good enough.

Quality is often subjective. Consider stereo equipment: An audiophile may speak glowingly of midrange tones, while the typical consumer really only cares about pumping bass, a cool label or a pretty display.

A critically acclaimed movie can be a dud at the box office and more people buy Big Macs each day than filet mignon. Quality isn't the only predictor of success.

The following are examples of products that -- both subjectively and objectively -- were hailed as the top of their class, but nevertheless failed.

Betamax loses alpha status
A legendary tale of superiority losing its quest for market dominance is the oft-revisited battle between VHS and Betamax.

The former was pioneered by JVC, the latter by Sony ( SNE).

Much like the later battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray, the late 1970s saw the formats competing for market share (along with a long list of other technologies that never gained traction).

VHS had one advantage over Betamax -- a longer recording time per cassettes -- while Betamax had objectively superior image quality. The problem for Sony is that consumers cared more about tape length. As home recording became more popular, the one-hour max recording time didn't offer enough space. The typical running time of most films made the better-looking, but far too short recordings of Betamax problematic, especially as the video rental market developed.

And then there was porn. Sony, in a decision it may regret, locked itself out of the lucrative market for X-rated fare by refusing to allow pornography to be sold on its format.

By 1988, Sony started inching toward VHS and in 2002 stopped production on Betamax.

The Zune: An 'iPod killer' gets killed
You know a product is in trouble when even the company that makes it isn't sure whether it is still available.

You can forgive consumers if they have been confused in recent months about the state of the Zune, Microsoft's ( MSFT) attempt at an iPod killer. For months, all signs pointed to the end. There was a lack of marketing, unclear manufacturing numbers and Wal-Mart ( WMT) stopped selling it.

On its Web site this past spring, Microsoft posted a discontinuation notice and advised consumers its focus would be on its Windows Phone.

Then the Zune's product support team pulled a Mark Twain and said reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated, the Web site notice was pulled and consumers were advised there really is still a Zune.

Last month, the resurrected Zune ran out of lives. It was announced, officially and with finality, that the product was kaput.

To the consternation of those who see Apple ( AAPL) as next to godliness, there is no shortage of tech writers and reviewers who have long maintained that the Zune -- often derided as a copycat product -- was actually superior.

In particular, the final incarnation of the media player -- the Zune HD -- scored points on looks, OLED display, interface, variety of video codecs, Xbox and TV integration, built-in HD radio and price. Zune supporters also said the subscription music service known as a Zune Music Pass was a worthy alternative to the iTunes ecosystem.

The Zune, despite a fan base, could never escape the shadow of its popular rival that, launched in 2001, had an insurmountable lead over the challenger's first appearance in 2006. Over the years, the Zune was mired between a 4% and 10% market share in its space, compared with the iPod's baseline of more than 60% penetration.

Tallying the sales of MP3 players last year, the analysts at NPD Group showed what the Zune was up against. On its top 10 list, variations of the iPod claimed all but one spot. The 4GB Sandisk Sansa Clip+ rounded things out at No. 10.

HD DVD sings the blues
As high-definition discs began to replace standard DVDs, the folks at Sony must have had a foreboding sense of deja vu.

Sony had lost its Betamax battle years earlier and its mini-disc media -- though praised by audio professionals and music enthusiasts -- withered on the vine. In the past decade, as high-resolution TVs went mainstream, it found itself in yet another format battle.

On its side was Blu-ray, a format it had developed with Phillips. Over time, its supporters would include Hitachi, LG, Samsung and Sharp.

But Sony had a rival company competing for a new, souped-up standard for DVDs. Its HD DVD (originally named Advanced Optical Disc) counted Microsoft (which offered Xbox integration) and Intel ( INTC) as its allies.

Among the claims of HD DVD supporters -- private reviewers and Toshiba itself -- were that it offered better video (an encoding issue that today isn't as relevant), greater interactivity (unlike early Blu-ray discs, HD DVD and players could use an Internet connection for firmware upgrades and added features), region-free discs (meaning U.S. and overseas formats would be the same) and less-expensive hardware (another gap that has since been overcome, with prices dropping substantially).

HD DVD had a more perfected, stable technology; early Blu-ray players were seen as a buggy works-in-progress.

Although both formats were sold for a time (as were players built for them) it became clear there could only be one. Although movie studios and hardware makers may have picked their side of the battle, it was deemed inefficient and profit eroding to try to serve two masters.

So why did Blu-ray win?

Sony is widely considered to have had the more effective marketing campaign and created additional, much-needed buzz by adding Blu-ray capability to the PlayStation 3.

Movie studios were won over by Sony's commitment to their choice of additional anti-copying and digital rights management technology, the specifics of which Toshiba had been reluctant to implement above and beyond their existing piracy protections.

The tipping point came when Warner Brothers decided to put all its eggs in the Blu-ray basket, which led retailers such as Wal-Mart, Blockbuster and Best Buy ( BBY) -- a well as Netflix ( NFLX) -- to also pick that side of the battle.

In 2008, Toshiba waved the white flag and said it would abandon HD DVD.

The Dvorak keyboard meets Dr. Dvorak-ian
The overwhelming majority of us have never used a keyboard that wasn't arranged with the familiar "qwerty" layout, named for the first six letters of the alphabet to appear on it.

But that hasn't stopped aficionados of the Dvorak keyboard from boasting of it offering a better way -- faster and more ergonomic -- and waging a decade-after-decade campaign for wider use.

The layout of the Dvorak keyboard, named for inventor Dr. August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington in the 1930s, is far different than the traditional set-up most are accustomed to.

The basic set-up for letters:

P Y F G C R L
A O E U I D H T N S
Q J K X B M W V Z

The system has been touted as more time-saving, efficient and ergonomic than the traditional keyboard layout. Why then are today's keyboards rarely configured with the Dvorak system?

To understand why, you have to harken back to the origin of qwerty.

When the typewriter was invented in 1866, its keys were ordered alphabetically. The problem was that striking adjacent keys too quickly would cause the corresponding hammers to intertwine and jam. With the release of the first commercially produced typewriter in 1873, the qwerty layout was developed with the goal of placing frequently used letter pairings on opposite sides of the keyboard, better separating the striking arms.

According to a history of the keyboard published by MIT, Dvorak challenged the dominance of the set-up by creating a mapping that was more efficient and easier to learn. His approach gained converts, but not without controversy. A study by the U.S. Navy in 1944 (Dvorak was a Naval officer) found that after proper training and practice Dvorak typists were 74% faster and 68% more accurate than their qwerty counterparts.

The qwerty camp, however was not convinced, and accused the Navy study of bias.

A government study in the 1950s found that the two systems -- compared for speed and accuracy -- were about the same and the learning curve and cost of a systemwide Dvorak switchover wasn't worth it.

The Dvorak fight continues to rage, though. Consumer demand led typewriter giant Smith-Corona to offer a Dvorak option in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently the fight has focused on computers, smartphones and tablets.

The ability to "remap" Mac and PC keyboards exists, and various companies are making Dvorak peripherals. Skins and sticker sheets are often used to convert a standard keyboard to the alternative ordering.

Browse tech Web sites and newsgroups and you'll also still find a small but enthusiastic base pressuring Apple ( AAPL) (for the iPhone and iPad, in particular), Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), IBM ( IBM), Microsoft ( MSFT) and Logitech ( LOGI) to offer better Dvorak integration and support.

An Apple (and Commodore!) OS TKO
With a market cap that jockeys with ExxonMobile ( XOM) as the world's largest, it is pretty easy to forget Apple has often been an also-ran in the tech space.

Even today, many credit Microsoft -- perhaps rightfully so -- as being the operating system that put a PC in every home. Bill Gates' brilliance was in convincing IBM, and eventually others, that his variation on DOS was the standardized operating system needed for market domination.

Then there was the upstart Apple, which took its swings at the behemoth pairing by introducing a user-friendly, graphical interface (we say that well aware Xerox ( XRX) was the creator ... but we digress).

The debate will rage on, as it has since 1984, over which OS is superior. Here is the argument, however, from those who say Apple's system was the better of the two from get-go: In terms of usability, one can draw a conclusion Apple had a better grip on making computing mainstream, so much so that Gates and his Microsoft team almost succeeded in licensing the Mac OS. When Apple (a much larger company at the time) squashed any such deal, the release of Windows 1.0 prompted the threat of a lawsuit over copyright infringement.

A compromise led Microsoft to continue making Mac software, while Apple allowed some of its visual aspects to be used in Windows.

Lawsuit threats again flew back and forth when Apple CEO John Sculley deemed Microsoft's Windows 2.0 far more similar to the Apple OS than the license agreement allowed. A judge would later rule against Apple.

Over time, Microsoft's business model and in-demand application suites allowed it to overtake Apple.

Team Apple has some more recent evidence Microsoft is trying to emulate its innovation.

In 2009, a Microsoft executive -- Microsoft Partner Group Manager Simon Aldous -- perhaps said more than he should have at a tech conference: "One of the things that people say an awful lot about the Apple Mac is that the OS is fantastic, that it's very graphical and easy to use. What we've tried to do with Windows 7 -- whether it's traditional format or in a touch format -- is create a Mac look and feel in terms of graphics."

That said, Microsoft, as of October, commanded an 86.5% share of the operating system marketplace, compared with 6.5% for the Mac OS.

To add another wrinkle into the debate of the best OS not being the most popular, there are also Linux users willing to go toe-to-toe with "distros" such as Red Hat and Ubuntu. Peer back in time a bit and you will also find plenty of computer geeks (and we use term affectionately) who can make a persuasive case for the Commodore 64 (made between 1982 and 1994, with a modern iteration now available) having not only state-of-the-art hardware at a consumer-friendly price, but a graphical approach that rivaled, if not surpassed, even Apple's.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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