The Early Adoption Paradox

Companies need the spendthrift, line-waiting, early adopters. So why are they so willing to screw them over?

I suffer from a near-debilitating fear of tech commitment. Early adopter, I am not. With pre-orders of the first Google Android phone rumored to be kicking off any day now, early adoption is a topic I’ve been burning a lot of brain cells on lately. I mean, should I or shouldn’t I? That’s the eternal question of this transistor-dependent existence I lead. Unfortunately for my own technological evolution, I find early adoption to be a lot like playing Russian Roulette with a bullet lodged in all six chambers: I can’t possibly win.

I often wonder what goes on inside the mind of an early-adopter.

A good friend of mine has it bad—every single time a shiny new product is released, you can bet he’ll be one of the first to have it. You know this guy. He’s the one who set aside $600 for the iPhone the day it was first rumored to even exist. He’s always waiting in those wrap-around-the-block store lines or giving me the inside track on the next big “secret” pre-order or closed-beta he’s eyeballing. I remember the day the original gumpack-shaped iPod Shuffle was first announced. Despite having a top-of-the-line whatever-gen “full-sized” iPod was out at the time, he just had to get his mitts on the Shuffle. He told me it would be like a sidecar to his regular iPod. Poor guy. By now, he must have a Smithsonian-like storage locker full of dust-caked, obsolete gadgetry.

But here’s the thing: My buddy and others like him are what make the tech world go ’round. Hardware manufacturers, software makers and Internet service operators don’t just hope for this type of consumer—they NEED them. Most of the tech-buying public is as skittish as I am about jumping into bed with something new and unproven. Thankfully, these early adopters are out there to test the waters for us. Once we see from the sidelines that they’re out there having fun, we’re comfortable enough to join the game. This is how a new product first survives and then eventually flourishes.

An early-adopter is a pioneer of sorts—but what’s the benefit of being one? If a product does actually take off and become wildly successful, it’s not like they get a share of the profits. In fact, they don’t get anything above and beyond what I get when I finally tag into the match much later on. What they do get, more often than not, is a royal screwing when the prices drop or successive product iterations are quickly ushered in.

Then again, isn’t the early adopter happy to play along? When he eschews personal hygiene and adult responsibility to stand in line for the latest and greatest wonder gadget, doesn’t he realize he’s going to pay a tax for the bragging rights he (thinks he) has? Doesn’t he know full well that a slicker Version #2 is just around the corner? Yes indeed, says the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The non-profit research foundation has published a study, which found that early technology adopters make up 8 percent of the total U.S. adult population. “The overwhelming majority of them know full well what they’re getting into,” says Pew’s Assistant Director, John Horrigan. “These are people with a passion for technology who like being on the cutting edge. Companies understand this and know that these people will not be alienated by the subsequent versions [of their products] that come out. Clearly, this is worthwhile for a lot of early adopters, otherwise we wouldn’t have this model.”

That’s nice, but I’m going to remain steadfastly terrified of new, unproven technology and I’ll continue to cower behind the courage of the early adopter. You, my friend, are the battle-scarred warrior who goes forth bravely into the dark and dangerous, uncharted waters of tech consumerism. If you discover an island paradise out there, send a message back to shore and I’ll follow. But if your boat gets swallowed by a sea monster, well, you should have see it coming.

Exactly what’s got me so frightened about early adoption? Let’s have a look-see in my rogue’s gallery of the products most cruel to their first owners.

iPhone

Apple’s success, more so than any other company I can think of, is built atop the bruised and beaten bodies of early adopters. The most egregious example being, of course, when the company slashed the price of the higher-end first-gen iPhone by $200 a mere two months after its release while simultaneously phasing out the lower-end model. For the folks who’d waited weeks in line for the trinket and paid upwards of $600 for me-first bragging rights, it was a kick in the teeth. And it was these very consumers who’d made the phone a success. Shame on Apple for that one. But, it wasn’t the first or last time the company burned early adopters—by now we’re all familiar with the curse Apple puts on its own first-gen product lines. And yet, the early adopter is always there to take the licks.

High Definition DVD

Not too long ago, when early adopters were warring over HD-DVD and Blu-ray, I sat back and let things play out. I really do feel bad for the people who shelled out as much as $1,000 for the modern-day equivalent of a Betamax unit. This was a tough one to call. Unlike the fight for Betamax, which plotted foolish Sony on one side against the rest of the movie industry, it wasn’t clear which horse to place your wager on in the race for optical disc supremacy. HD-DVD versus Blu-ray was a pretty even schism, with tech and entertainment industry giants representing both halves. (For brevity’s sake, let’s skip the argument over whether or not the best format won out in the end. That’s what the comments are for!)

PlayStation(s)

I also have a soft spot for owners of the original PSP and PS3. I’d be pretty ticked off at Sony if I’d been one of the first people to purchase one of its new gaming units. It seems like every few months a slicker, more powerful and much more affordable PSP or PS3 is being announced. Is this Sony’s way of thanking early adopters for having faith in two product lines that could have very easily been colossal flops?

Xbox

Then we’ve got Microsoft actually strong-arming its consumer base into early adoption. Once the company released the Xbox 360 gaming console in 2005, it completely shut down development on the original Xbox and encouraged third-party game publishers to do the same. Today, some of gaming’s top titles, including the Madden franchise, are still being made for the eight-year-old PlayStation 2 console, but not for the Xbox. The first buyers of the original Xbox took a leap of faith that the world’s biggest software company would be able to build a quality video-game machine. That faith was rewarded with abandonment. For Xbox owners, the choice was to either stew in obsolescence, make the costly upgrade to the newer model, or go elsewhere. I would have gone elsewhere.

The Internet

So far, I’ve only covered things that cost money. Maybe I’m still licking wounds left over from the dotcom 1.0 bust, but I even have trouble diving headlong into free Internet-based services. Gmail. Twitter. Digg. LinkedIn. There may not be a financial investment required with any of these sites or services, but there’s certainly an investment of time, effort and personal information. What happens when I spend all this time getting myself set up on them only to have the carpet swept out from underneath my feet? I’ve actually managed to graduate from wading around in the Gmail kiddie pool and am learning to tread water in the deep end, allowing myself to become increasingly dependent on the service. But, Gmail is still in beta a full four years after its inception. Four years! What’s that say about Google’s long-term commitment to its email service?