The “Early Adopter” (was Re: CPSR document on telecom) [cr-95/11/13]


Sender: •••@••.••• (Glen Raphael)

 A concept that I find vitally important and relevant to telecom reform is
the idea of the "early adopter."

The early adopter is the person who buys a new gadget when it is new,
ridiculously expensive, probably unreliable and definitely overpriced. Nine
times out of ten, the gadget he buys ends up being relatively unimportant
in the grand scheme of things. For instance, consider PDAs.(*) There are
thousands of people who bought the AT&T Eo before the company gave up on it
and got out of the business. There are thousands of people who bought the
Sony MagicLink 1000 before the company essentially gave up on it and came
out with an incompatible successor, the 2000.

These people, who are willing to throw their money around with abandon in
order to have the latest gadget, are a key ingredient in technological
progress. When some new product finally makes it into the mainstream, we
have them to thank.

The AT&T Eo was definitely on the cutting edge (also know as "the bleeding
edge" because people who are on it tend to get cut). It was also a pretty
stupid product in some ways. Giving Eos to the poor at a reduced price
might be a good way to subsidize AT&T and protect it from its own mistakes,
but it would be a lousy way to help the poor.

I use PDA examples because I work on the Newton, but the same principles
apply just as well to other areas. Take, for example, airbags on cars or
high-speed modems. With cars, there are some people who are willing to
spend $60,000 for a car that has every _conceivable_ safety feature. These
people are the test dummies on which manufacturers get to try new
manufacturing methods. With modems, there are people who are willing to buy
a new modem every single time the speed doubles. I seem to be such a
person, as I have personally bought about five "fastest available" modems
so far. The people who chose to wait-and-see have reaped the benefit of
_my_ early investment in this technology, as they can now buy a 9600 baud
modem for merely tens, rather than hundreds or thousands, of dollars.

My point is that the existence of early adopters is a good thing, and the
fact that early adopters are buying and using some new thing does NOT mean
that the general public needs it yet!  For every "airbag" that generally
works out pretty well and becomes relatively cheap and useful, there's an
"Eo" that goes broke and leaves all the customers in the lurch. The poor
can basically afford telecom today already, at the lower end of it. What
they _cannot_ afford is to be on that bleeding edge, constantly upgrading.

I see efforts to make sure that the poor can always afford the latest and
greatest technology as a futile attempt to stamp out the existence of
"early adopters" by making _everyone_ an "early adopter". One way to make
everyone adopt a technology before its time is to force people to spend
more than they would like to on a technology that frankly isn't worth it
yet (this is routinely done for auto safety features). Another way is to
force the real early adopters to pay an additional "universal access tax"
to subsidize others (this is routinely done for telephone service). Either
strategy will reduce the number of early adopters and consequently reduce
the amount of time and money invested in that technology during the crucial
early stages. It may also establish a regulatory authority which will get
in the way and never be disbanded. Overall the effect may well be to
_lengthen_ the time it takes for the technology to become mainstream.

Either way, such efforts are generally a waste of everyone's time and
money. Either way, such efforts require authorities to guess in advance
what technologies are going to be important, a task which they are
notoriously bad at. Right now one can get a 2400 baud modem for $20. One
can get an AOL account with web access for $9/month. One can get a computer
capable of running AOL for $100. One can set up a local bulletin board for
the cost of a telephone line, and someone else can call that bulletin board
for free. So where's the real problem?

There's an ongoing AT&T ad whose tagline is "You will. And the company that
will bring it to you is AT&T." The funny thing about those ads is that AT&T
didn't invent or successfully popularize any of the technologies being
shown. This company is just trying to associate itself in the public mind
with things that would have happened just as easily without any help from
AT&T. That's the way I feel about the bureaucrats who propose Universal
Access legislation. They can see the train coming, and they want to pretend
that they had a hand in steering it. Sure, let them give speeches about it.
Let them make appearances. But don't let them near the engine. The early
adopters are steering that train, and the chances are that they have a
surer hand at the switch than congress will ever have. Wait a couple
minutes longer and that train is sure to arrive regardless of what the
legislature does.

Glen Raphael

[* PDA stands for "Personal Digital Assistant". It's a very small computer.]

Glen Raphael, •••@••.•••
President, Stanford/Palo Alto Macintosh User's Group
<A HREF="">Home Page</A><BR>
"You might say I've lost my belief in the politicians,
they all seem like game show hosts to me." -- Sting

 Posted by Andrew Oram  - •••@••.••• - Moderator: CYBER-RIGHTS (CPSR)
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