Early Adopters Are Useless

We are early adopters. We use. We try. We evangelize. We bury. We filter.

That’s what we think anyway.

In reality, we are pretty useless.

Late last year, Amazon released the Kindle to the joy and enthusiasm of many early adopters. Robert Scoble, the poster child for early adopters, gleefully got his Kindle on the first day and wrote about how beautiful it was and how it brought him great pleasure. One week later, he hated the Kindle listing a laundry list of problems from usability to the inability to send gifts to other Kindle owners.

Increasingly, I’m seeing common people (read: non-tech early adopters) who own and love the Kindle. And the numbers bear that out, if we’re to believe TechCrunch’s statement that by 2010, Amazon will have sold $750M in Kindles or 1-3% of the company’s total revenue. (Update: For clarity, the TechCrunch article cites a CitiGroup analyst and is not the authoritative assessment of TechCrunch. My point is, that’s where I heard the number in the first place – regardless of the original source.)

Brad Feld, a few years ago, wrote an amazing article titled The First 25,000 Users are Irrelevant which talks about the effect of early adopters on companies and products. As the oh-too-typical scenario goes, TechCrunch or Mashable covers a new product, there is a surge of traffic, registration or sign-ups for private beta invites from early adopters, or “tire kickers” then they go away. Some remain and become “evangelists” for the company or product, but most people don’t even care. Later on, if the company has mainstream staying power, the real buy-in will happen organically and without the say-so of the early adopters who largely came and went.

See, we like to tell people we are filters. We like to think we are influencers and powerful. We like to think we have an inside angle on what works and what doesn’t work, but we are just small insignificant people in the grand scheme of things, and largely irrelevant.

Amazon knows this. They don’t really care about us. And that’s why they might hit the $750M mark by 2010 and completely bypass the early adopters, placing their Kindle directly in the hands of mainstream commuters and book lovers.

Update: Corvida at SheGeeks thinks this is generational and writes a thoughtful and intelligent argument about this. However, I’m not convinced that everything is generational. I think early adoption is also a result of personalities.


7 Replies to “Early Adopters Are Useless”

  1. Aaron,

    I’m hurt, being a guy that likes to adopt early and often. To say we don’t matter hurts. :)

    Honestly though, the real success of something comes only in small part to early adopters. It’s when something goes out to the public that it either lives or dies. The Kindle is probably one of the best examples of that.

    But I do think early adopters do really help a product. It’s folks like you and I that help unearth the big broken pieces, find the cool uses first, perhaps either one a deal breaker for a product or service. I’ve watched several products evolve and change from early alpha through to public release. The influence of the hard core is felt.

    In the end though maybe it matters not, since the product will go out, and most likely these days with some or several bugs, regardless of early adopters. And yes, it won’t die most likely because of a lack of interest by early adopters or even the bad press they might give.

    Would I stop being an early adopter though? Hell no. I love getting involved at the beginning of things, seeing the unpolished, giving suggestions, cheering the team on, and making new friends.

    Don’t you stop either! Thanks for another fun article.

  2. Smart analysis Aaron. All too often early adopters forget that they’re not really part of the mainstream (by choice or by circumstance, it doesn’t matter), and as such aren’t always the best judge at what will be popular among mom and pop.

    Early adopters, at least in the tech/web scene, also get “featureitis”. The next thing HAS to have more/better features than the last thing. If it doesn’t support obscure feature X or Y it’s dead to them. Then an “inferior” product, which is really good enough for most people, comes out and gets super popular.

  3. FWIW, that statement was from a Citigroup analyst and not directly from TechCrunch.

  4. Early Adopters are the risk takers of society. I don’t count that as irrelevant on all levels. I concede that they are unable to predict the success or failure of a product with absolute accuracy, but last I checked no one else has the infallible crystal ball either. Still, I know that I will have a much better chance of predicting in my own area of expertise over time that is better than random. In individual examples I can be proved wrong compared to someone with no knowledge. If allowed to “compete” over a long test, as an expert or early adopter I will win out. I find it very valuable if I can find those people in areas I don’t care to become an expert. I have no inclination or time to know what you, Scoble or Arrington know about the tech industry. I would venture to guess that you would have no interest to learn what I know about the financial industry or what a physicist knows about the cosmos. I don’t have the time to become an expert in all things, and I do value the opinions of those who prove to be passionate in their quest for knowledge in that area. I understand they are mortals, and still make my own decisions, but sorry, Technosailor, I think you are very relevant.

  5. It’s true. I remember hearing all the negative discussion online about the Kindle and thinking “oh well, maybe we’ll have to wait for a decent ebook reader.” But when my mother got one for her birthday she cried, she was so happy.

    However, I don’t think early adopters are completely useless. Diffusion theory still works (the TechMeme crowd got me into FriendFeed, I got my dad on FF, and my dad recently joined, too – and he’s not an EA when it comes to social networking/blogging technologies).

  6. I certainly hope that you don’t consider me a non-techie. We need to make the distinction between technology and consumer products. The iPhone, the Kindle, the Nokia N95, etc. are neat little products, for consumers. They’re the latest in the current walled garden approaches to squeezing out some more $$$ from the fan boys.

    I would also include myself into this category since i also have a Kindle and really like the experience for what it’s primary purpose is. Reading books. I’m a book junkie and I’m having a hard time getting adequate shelf space for what I already have. The kindle solves a problem that I have IRL.

    There’s also the tech scene which is involved with making things and altering existing products/software to do a little more. For instance: tcptraceroute (http://michael.toren.net/code/tcptraceroute/), the sputnik project (http://www.openbeacon.org/), the Open Voting Consortium (http://www.openvotingconsortium.org/), or even Make Magazine (http://makezine.com/) and it’s sister site http://instructibles.com. There’s a real energy there that makes the consumer side look like a bunch of old geezers in a park watching the pigeons.

    Take the kindle for example. The screen technology isn’t necessarily new, it’s been around for almost a decade. EVDO has been around for quite some time in cell phones. And the other aspects aren’t exactly new either. It’s just a remix of existing technologies.

    Then there’s the iPhone. Touch screens have been around for a few decades and the double touch methods were developed my Xerox Parc back in the early 80’s. On screen keyboards have been around since Steven Hawking first got put in his chair. Once again, it’s just a repackaging of existing technologies. There’s nothing special there for those of us who actually make stuff for fun.

  7. oh chris, you are so non-techie.

    Kidding, you’re one of 4 people recently that showed up in my life with a Kindle. I use the generic combination of those 4 as a reference point.

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