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A recent trip to Japan got me thinking about the disadvantages of being an 'early adopter' of new products and technology, and how brands should encourage and reward those of us who get in ahead of the crowds.

Japanese technology shops are particularly fun, with blaring advertisements and garish coloured banners everywhere. 

In one, I found ‘easy to drink from’ vacuum mugs in a wide range of colours with a variety of sophisticated caps and drinking spouts. 

The humble black screw top I had bought in the UK was completely upstaged by these colourful, feature packed newcomers.

Read on to discover more about the disadvantages of being an early adopter and how brands could make it easier, or for a different take on this topic read Ben Davis' post looking at a range of ground-breaking internet-enabled products...

1. New products get better

Of course, a drinking mug is small fry when compared to some of the other devices I have bought early. I have an HD ready 32” Sony TV with a great screen and a Sky HD box but, having bought my TV early, it doesn’t have an HDMI output (and the converter doesn’t seem to work in practice). 

Buying a new colourful vacuum mug would not be a big deal but I do not want to splash out on a new TV just yet – if only I’d waited until the standards evolved. 

Which brings me to the second disadvantage of being ahead of the curve...

2. Standards are still evolving and you might not pick the winner.

When I bought my first video cassette recorder there were two and a half competing standards. The ‘half’ was a Philips/Grundig option which seemed doomed from the beginning but the other two were comparable – VHS and Betamax. 

Betamax produced better image quality but the VHS cassettes were slightly smaller. I thought Sony would win and bought a Betamax, but the leading TV rental company at the time picked VHS, giving it the critical mass to become the dominant standard. 

Still, although I couldn’t buy pre-recorded tapes, I was able to use the Betamax for years to record and time-shift TV programmes, but when it came time to replace the old machine, I had no choice but to go VHS and scrap all my old tapes. 

However, I still continued to invest early in technology and was amazed by the pace of change.

3. New products get more powerful and cheaper sooner than you expect

Computers for the home started as little more than toys until IBM brought out the IBM PC in 1981 and changed the world; a real computer with a real ‘killer’ business app, Visicalc – the pioneering spreadsheet which broke the computing mould by delivering more than it promised. 

The pace of PC development was astonishing. I recently found the receipt for an early PC I bought for home use that cost about £1,000 (probably about £5,000 by today’s standards) and featured a 1MB hard disk – wow!

When I bought my first iPad in 2010, I knew that it was just the start so I stuck with the basic model. However, even I have been surprised how quickly the innovations arrived. 

I eventually succumbed to the iPad Mini and now find the original iPad amazingly heavy and ‘clunky’. At the moment, it serves as a grandkids machine, but even they realise that it is inferior to Grandpa’s ‘little iPad’.

At least with the iPad, I am still using apps I purchased for the original machine, albeit upgraded a few times, but sometimes the new gadget doesn’t survive at all in the new world.

4. Some innovations don’t survive competition

In 1996, I purchased one of the early Palm Pilots from 3Com. The synching worked well, the Graffiti handwriting feature worked too and was surprisingly easy to learn. 

In time, the early Pilot was upgraded to the Palm V (a very sleek machine) and then when mobile technology took off, I bought a Treo which had every bit as devoted a following as the Blackberry (I wonder what became of them?). 

However, the Palm ecosystem never survived the iPhone jungle and although I liked the real keyboard, I liked the iPhone’s other features and apps more.

The saving grace from this experience is that I have consistently backed up my devices to Outlook in various guises and although it has not exactly been painless, I do still have access to my diary from 1996, even on my iPad mini.

Four ways to make "early adoption" easier

Although some of my past technology ought to be in a museum, I remain positive about being an early adopter.

I like the benefits of new gadgets and devices and accept that ‘future-proofing’ is virtually meaningless with the pace of technological change today.

But there are four things that suppliers can do to make ‘early adoption’ easier and less painful.

1. Be honest about early products likely being superseded and encourage early adopters with incentives. Google Glass is a good example of this although I doubt Google appreciated the nickname (Glasshole) in the Bay area for members of their Pioneer programme.

2. Pace developments so that purchasers of the previous model do not feel too aggrieved that theirs is not the latest. 

Apple is champion in this area where incremental innovations are much more common than radical changes and new products. 

I still happily use my iPhone 4S and didn’t covet the iPhone 5, 5s or 5c. I may even survive the announcement of the iPhone 6, so maybe I am losing some of my early adopter characteristics.

3. Allow favourable trade-ins for early products. Not many suppliers seem to follow this route. It’s clearly a trade-off and with the burgeoning eBay marketplace it is likely that many of those trying to trade-in have simply bought an early device. 

However with the sophistication of loyalty schemes, I think it’s entirely possible to target rewards on loyal early adopters.

4. Maintain backward compatibility as far as possible. As I wrote when the iPad was launched, its ability to use iPhone apps not only gave it a huge existing library of functionality but also a massive customer base of people who knew how to use the new device. 

My own experience with the diary on the Palm pilot shows that some compatibility can make the difference between a user who is encouraged to upgrade, and one who is left to dump all their old tech (like my Betamax tapes).

Rewarding and retaining loyal customers is something which retailers ought to take very seriously, so I firmly believe early adopters should be encouraged and these points should be an important part of the strategy for all new products.

Tom Stewart

Published 26 June, 2014 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

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