Early adopters: geeks or pioneers?

Full Disclosure

I’m looking askance at a pricey new product with important features missing. “Steve, you’ve got to understand,” said the product’s handler. “We’re aiming this at early adopters.” In the tech world, that usually means hapless geeks who overpay for new but inadequate products.

But smart early adopters fight that image. The trick is knowing which products to avoid. Take Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry 5810, which came out in 2002. The first phone-enabled version of RIM’s popular e-mail handheld, the 5810, required you to use headphones to make a voice call. That worked fine until you got a call and had to untangle a nest of wires to answer it. So within months RIM released the 6700 series, with speaker and mike on the unit. The process will undoubtedly repeat itself with Palm Inc.’s Tungsten W PDA, which – amazingly – mimics RIM’s headphones-only design.

But sometimes the gain is worth the pain. I felt like a trailblazing wireless pioneer a couple of years ago when I installed 3Com Corp.’s Home Wireless Gateway and a pair of PC Cards. Both of the cards eventually died, and I had to reboot the buggy gateway every other day to get an Internet address. Then it croaked too.

The replacements I bought from other vendors are far cheaper and more reliable. So, yes, as an early adopter, I paid a premium to get unfinished technology. But even with those flaky first-generation products, the benefits of going wireless outweighed the downsides – at least for me.

Being There First

The lesson here: come in late, and you’ll have a happier experience. But you may pay a cost in terms of the productivity you lose while sitting on the sidelines.

Besides, first-generation equipment sometimes turns out just fine. The hefty price I paid for Radio Shack Corp.’s Model 100 laptop 20 years ago put me among a select few who could compute anywhere. Subsequent models in the line were never worth the bother. Years later, I bought Sony’s first VAIO 505 notebook because it was the first usable small Windows machine; new features in later models didn’t really improve the concept.

Savvy early adopters make sure that the new products we buy feature significant improvements, not just incremental ones. That’s why I never bought a Zip drive, but came early to the CD-RW party.

It’s also essential to avoid products with serious, basically uncorrectable omissions, like that headphone-only phone design. If you don’t have to buy the thing the day it comes out, wait a bit and search Web sites and discussion groups for real-world comments from the earliest of early adopters.

And watch out for services or consumables whose disappearance could make a product useless. Long ago, computer magazines printed software in a bar-code-like format called Cauzin SoftStrip. Early adopters who invested in the US$200 gadget necessary to turn the pages into computer code were stuck when magazines ceased printing the pages.

But at least all those early adopters wound up with really unusual doorstops.

Manes is an author who has been covering technology for more than 30 years and is a contributing editor for PC World (U.S.). He can be reached at stephen_manes@pcworld.com.