This post is the culmination of two things:
2. An ongoing conversation I've had with a number of coworkers about the substandard technologies that always seem to triumph over the "better" options.
The examples of the success of inferior technologies are bountiful. MySQL's prevalence despite some non-trivial technical flaws (around clustering, around licensing as highlighted by the Oracle merger); PHP as the de facto glue language of the web despite the fact that every other language in it's class is probably a better programming language (e.g. Python, Perl); VHS and Beta Max; BlueRay (which are proprietary and a physically less durable media) and HD-DVD; and so forth.
The factors are (of course) multiple:
People have to know about technologies at some stage in their development if the technology is to take off. I'm not sure what that crucial point is, and frankly marketing is something that not only I don't understand, but I don't really think anyone understands. Having said that, I think it's clear that technologies don't compete simply on their technical merits, and this is in recognition of that.
Technologies that appear at the right time, with regards to availability of alternatives and the needs/interests in the market on those technologies matter a great deal, and can sometimes tip the balance between competing technologies. Arguably MySQL beat PostgreSQL not because it was better, but because it existed in a firm way a little bit earlier. Linux "won" market share over BSD, because BSD wasn't quite fully free/open source (or available) in 1990-1992 when Linux was taking off.
A project that doesn't look like it has energy and a large team behind it is probably doomed to fail on some level, not because it's a bad technology, but potential users of a technology need to feel confident that it's going to stick around. If no one is excited about it, then it'll never win, even if it's superior in the final analysis.
There's nothing, really, to be done. I think the truly superior technologies might benefit by paying attention to these factors when it matters, but then the developers of said technologies are probably less interested in marketing and proper timing than the competition. Which is perhaps as it should be.
I guess the lingering questions that I'll leave you with relate to thinking about the ways that open source and free software relate to other technologies. It strikes me that while there's a pretty good balance between open source and proprietary technologies in the examples I provided above, all of the open source technologies were commercialized very early on and very intensely in a way that none of their competitors really did. Are "wining technologies," a mystification of the proprietary technology world? Can community-based open source and free software technologies innovate and "win" in relation to their competitors?
I look forward to sorting out the answers in the comments. Onward and Upward!