27 Feb 2016

Early Adopters

Technology adoption starts with a core set of users (“innovators”), who then influence a second group, (“early adopters”) who in turn spread the technology through the wider population.

When I looked at my technology purchases, I found that I generally tended to wait until the technology reached a certain level of maturity. For example, I haven’t bought a VR system yet, and I don’t know if I want to buy a Windows PC for one, as opposed to just waiting for it to work with my Macbook Pro. I wasn’t one of the first Uber users. And so on.

I found that products are initially too rough and hard to use, and it’s better to wait till they stabilise and become easier and cheaper and interoperable with what I already have. This made me think as to why someone would use a rough product.

To some extent it’s one’s attitude and priorities. One person may have a greater capacity for putting up with short-term pain to get something cool. Or an early adopter may get a sense of excitement or a feeling of social status or being ahead of everyone else by being the first to adopt something.

But I suspect the bigger reason is that some users have a greater need for a product. This need gives them the incentive to put up with the high cost and inconvenience. VisiCalc is supposed to be the first spreadsheet app, and the killer app for the PC. People bought PCs because they wanted to run VisiCalc. And they did so despite the high price, slow speed, low memory, hard-to-use command-line interface, and so on, because it was much better and faster and less error-prone than doing calculations manually.

As another example, after millennia of sending messages by horseback or similar, the first time people could communicate across continents at the speed of light was the telegraph between New York and London. This was used primarily for financial information like stock prices, planning wars, etc. These were the few that were important enough or generated enough profit to pay for the cost of using the telegraph. Now we use the Internet to, say, make silly jokes on Facebook. People use social networking only because it’s easy and free. If it cost you a lot of money, say ₹10 per minute, or if it required specialised knowledge like flying a plane, few people would use the Internet. And the Internet was in fact far harder to use earlier. Why did anyone use it earlier, then? And if people didn’t use it earlier and pay the price in price and complexity and unreliability and so on, the rest of us wouldn’t be using it now.

You can’t trace the technology backward and ask, “Why did anyone use the Internet, in 1990, say, when it was hard to use?” The answer to that question is that the early adopters used the Internet because they had a far greater need than merely cracking jokes on Facebook. They worked out the kinks in the technology and made it better and cheaper and easier to use and more widespread, bringing in more and more users until now, when more than a billion people are online. That’s how technology spreads.

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