No, the Best Doesn’t Win

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Facebook has Zoom envy. A zillion companies are trying to eat Netflix’s lunch. Amazon isn’t the best place to shop, but it’s the king.

People — and I’m including myself — tend to overthink why some companies and products last and others wither. Being the first or even the best at something may not matter.

Simplicity is the overlooked secret to success. “It just works” are magic words.

In two months, Zoom went from an online video-calling service used by a relatively small number of businesses to a staple of pandemic life. My dad knows what Zoom is. “Zoombombing” and “Zumping” — being dumped by video chat — are verbs.

Why Zoom? Because it nails the basics.

While I was reporting an article last year, a business owner in Kenya said he mostly used Zoom for calls out of the country. The voice quality was far clearer than unreliable international telephone lines, he said. And technology executives, who usually aren’t impressed by anything short of unmanned spaceflight, regularly gush about the ease of hosting Zoom meetings.

Now, as my colleagues Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel reported, Facebook is putting its weight behind its own video-calling feature. You might call it … Zoombook?

Facebook has billions of people using its apps and bank vaults stuffed with money. That makes it a formidable competitor, but it may not be enough to overtake Zoom, just as video-calling options for Google and Microsoft haven’t been the stars of this crisis.

I don’t want to give too much credit to simplicity. Sometimes companies get lucky, are smart about enlisting allies, or make a better mousetrap. Money and ruthlessness doesn’t hurt, either. But often, easy wins.

Right now there are scores of companies trying to break Netflix’s lock on our home entertainment. They’re writing big checks to Hollywood stars in the belief that we care most about having the best movies and TV shows. Meh.

What’s overlooked is Netflix’s extreme competence at making it easy to buy and while away a lazy afternoon.

There’s just one version of Netflix — no add-on “tiers,” bundles and different prices with or without advertisements. It’s easy to quit, too, and Netflix has mastered the tricky task of making “The Avengers” stream without stress. It just works.

Disney’s streaming service is a counterpoint here: It just works, too, but also had early success because parents, especially, need the movies and shows. Disney is also a marketing genius.

When products don’t overtax our neurons, habits become ingrained. You could shop somewhere other than Amazon, but why bother? It works. The iPhone doesn’t give people reasons to ditch it. Google’s Chromebook computers took over schools in the United States largely because they were simple for children, and easy (and cheap) for schools.

Make it easy. Make it just work. It’s the deceptively difficult ticket to riches.

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Brian X. Chen, our personal tech columnist, suggests a potentially handy — and old-school — addition to your iPad:

In my last column, I named the iPad as the gadget of the pandemic because it excels at delivering our basic tech needs: entertainment, communications (especially videoconferencing), computing and internet access.

There’s also a brand-new benefit you might not be aware of: Your iPad now works with a mouse. The latest software update, iPadOS 13.4, adds support for wireless trackpads and mice, including accessories made by companies other than Apple.

Here’s how to pair your mouse with an iPad:

  • First, make sure to have the latest software installed, iPadOS 13.4.1. Go to the Settings app, tap General and tap Software Update. Follow the instructions to proceed with the installation.

  • After the installation is complete, open the Settings app, tap Bluetooth and then turn on your mouse. Your mouse should show up on the list of devices. Tap on it to connect.

  • Do they really need Uncle Sam’s money? Technology start-ups are debating whether to seek government loans earmarked for pandemic relief, my colleagues Erin Griffith and David McCabe report. Many of these young companies are hurting financially, but they have more far more places to turn for cash than most small businesses.

  • If you’re the parent of a tween, you already know this: Many millions of people watched musician Travis Scott perform a series of virtual concerts in the video game service Fortnite. Popular as a place for group shoot-’em-up games, Fortnite may also be a glimpse at the future of social entertainment when life is lived through screens.

  • Here’s a job that didn’t exist before: My colleague Taylor Lorenz writes about a life coach for people who give advice online about creativity, fitness, cooking and more. Being a social media influencer is a stressful, lonely life even before this pandemic spurred many more people to show their lives online.

Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis flubbed their lines sometimes. And when stars of old Hollywood messed up on a movie set, it was amazing.

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