Virulent Word of Mouse

July 13, 2010

Early Adopter, Enthusiast, or Pioneer? A User’s Guide to Technology Lingo.

Filed under: Editorial,Entrepreneurship,Essays,Managerial challenges in evolving markets — Shane Greenstein @ 1:43 pm

My wife glanced at the front page of the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Without looking up she said “Hey, this is what you study.”

The headline screamed in black, blue and green “The Early Birds.” Below it a sub-heading asked provocatively, “What is it about the new thing that makes us want it so bad? And why are some people more likely than others to take that first leap?

This is not the sort of headline or topic one sees in the Chicago Tribune every day, and certainly not on the front page with any regularity. I wondered if the newspaper had been sold to Wired or Techcrunch, and I had just missed the news.

I checked the online edition of the Tribune. It gave the article a headline with more tension, “Me-first Mentality” it screams, followed by “Early Adopters, whether of new smart phones, electric cars or solar panels, help clear a path for mainstream consumers.

My wife was just looking out for me. She knows that I am always looking for well-written articles for my MBAs. Needless to say, I do not get them from the Tribune often, but I would be perfectly happy to do so. The source does not matter as much as the content. I am happy to show an article to students if the news article illustrates the concepts of the class and illustrate the concepts in real world settings.

So I read the article. Sorry to say, it does not make the cut. It is an entertaining article, but not an informative or enlightening one.

I was going to leave at that, but I could not get the errors out of my head. The errors were so basic, so fundamental, and ultimately so maddening. More concretely, the article does not properly draw sharp differences between an enthusiast, an early adopter, and a pioneer. It also has a side note about technology orphans, but does not label the topic properly.

To be fair to the reporters, it is not as if they could look up the definitions in Websters dictionary. These words are the lingo of technology markets, and that is a specialty, to be sure.

At the same time, I would hate to see the type of mushy definitions found in this news article fall into common use. At the risk of sounding like a pedantic curmudgeon, this post explains where the article went wrong, and why it matters. In brief, getting a few definitions straight helps navigate an otherwise confusing technology landscape.

There is one other reason you might read this post. If you have ever found yourself in the middle of a conversation conducted by technology nerds, you may have noticed these terms. They get thrown around regularly. Perhaps you were too embarrassed to ask for definitions then. Perhaps this post can help you understand what the nerds were talking about.

Early adopter

Let’s start with early adopter. An early adopter is someone who buys a technology early in its new life, and for the sake of exploring the technology to realize a big advantage. An early adopter is typically a dreamer, somebody who plays with technology for the enjoyment, but, mostly importantly, potentially for the potential to make a grand leap in a competitive race.

The phrase, early adopter, carries some baggage with it. Geoffrey Moore popularized this term in his widely-read book, Crossing the Chasm, and, as a result, one very specific definition has become common in use, namely, the one Moore offers.

According to Moore, industries evolve as certain personalities make their first purchase of the technology. The analysis  draws attention to those first purchases. So it focuses on the first person to have bought a PC, say, in 1979, or the first person to signed up for Internet access in, say, 1995, or the first person to have bought a digital camera, say, in 1999.

In other words, the definition of early adopter embodies a notion of when the person acts and who that person is. The definition embodies a notion about when that person acts in comparison to everyone else, and in comparison to the stages of development of a particular technology. Almost by definition, early adopters always show up during the earliest moments of a technology’s development. Never later.

In Moore’s paradigm an early adopter is not the very first to explore the technology. In Moore’s approach early adopters follow after intrepid innovators, who are the earliest of all adopters. Such people are, stereotypically, supreme nerds, who play with technology solely for the joy of it. So in Moore’s standard approach the early adopters are second, and (sort of) almost first to try to put technology to some use.

Importantly, in Moore’s framework all adoption by early adopters occurs before a technology moves into mainstream markets. That is the big message in Moore’s approach. A market of early adopters does not look like a market aimed at mainstream buyers. Suppliers should plan accordingly. (If you want to know more, read his book).

A technology enthusiast

An technology enthusiast is somebody who just likes technology for its own sake, who enjoys playing with all kinds of technologies. Most early adopters are technology enthusiasts in one respect or another.  That is, enthusiasts often become early adopters when they want to put technology to use in some grand vision, making their first purchase when the technology is still quite young and not yet mainstreamed. But the definition encompasses more than just that behavior.

In short, most early adopters are an enthusiast, but not every enthusiast is an early adopter. Good marketing executives understand that.

For example, as the article notes, there are a large number of Apple enthusiasts. These people simply insist on buying the latest version of the iPhone, and they want it early. This example illustrates a feature of a technology enthusiast, who tends to buy a lot of technology, even many upgrades to products. Remarkably, some enthusiasts insist on buying upgrades for products they already have, even if the product (they already own) continues to have many functionally useful years left in it.

Now, I must confess a bit of irritation at the article’s (almost naive) description of technology enthusiasts. Look, there is nothing particularly unusual about this type of person. Apple has its groupies, to be sure, but, for goodness sakes, enthusiasts exist in every consumer technology market, and have for a long time. The reporters almost confused Apple’s very adept abilities at exploiting technology enthusiasts with a novel social movement. Apple’s abilities are impressive, but the social movement is not unique.

The reporter then discussed solar panels as another example where enthusiasts arise. That might be, but it would have been easier to stick to consumer IT. Lots of markets have their technology enthusiasts — camcorders, PDAs, PCs, and TVs. Back when those markets were new and evolving, there were also people who insisted on buying the latest digital cameras, the latest digital camcorders, the latest PDAs, the latest PCs, and the latest HDTV. Some people even did this back when the VCR was new (yes, I know that might be hard to believe). It also happened back when CB radio was new (Hollywood even made movies about it at the time), and, gasp, even when color television was new.

There is even a special name for people who act this way in the stereo market. They are called an audiophiles. It used to be very expensive to feed this taste. Solid state electronics has made it much less burdensome to support today, so it looks less impressive than it used to.

I could go on. Before consumer electronics ever existed, there were also popular crazes about airplanes, automobiles, electrical motors, air conditioners, and refrigerators. Before that there were crazes about automobiles (again), sewing machines, bicycles, and *gasp* locomotives. As long as there has been technology, there have been technology enthusiasts who obsess about it. Get the point?

Back to the present. Who are these technology enthusiasts? Some of them have a bit of Veruka Salt in the them. (“I want it now!”). Some of them are just nerdy engineers with insatiable desire to take things apart and understand how they work. To be fair, however, most technology enthusiasts are rather mild mannered and harmless. The enthusiasts I know are not childish. Most are just grown-up nerds with money to burn on their hobbies and passions. In small doses the enthusiasm can be endearing.

Anyway, back to the big point: Early adopters are likely to be enthusiast, but not necessarily the other way around. That distinction is important to keep straight if you happen to be in the business of selling and distributing technology products and services.

Consider this difference, for example. The early adopter has  a very specific  role to play in Moore’s model.  The presence of an early adopter signals what stage the technology has reached. Technology enthusiasts, in contrast, are just consumers who technology companies like to target. The timing of their purchases might or might not be relevant to the development of the market, so their presence may not offer any clue about any particular stage.

From a marketing perspective, Moore’s approach has some very specific lessons. Early adopters often require special outlets and specific type of technical support. In return for that expense, they can be a source of lessons for a firm looking to improve their technology. Best Buy or Fry’s Electronics or a special online channel might be the only way to reach them.

Technology enthusiasts, on the other hand, might or might not need a special outlet or special support. Some might go to Best Buy, but many are perfectly happy to buy their products in Target.

More to the point, firms can sell upgrades to enthusiasts. There is no particular reason to focus on their first purchase. From a marketing perspective, when selling to enthusiasts, the most relevant issue concerns the size of their wallets, and the influence of their opinions. Do they like a product or not? Will they try it and buy one or more or not? Will they recommend it to friends?

In short, technology enthusiasts take an entirely different marketing role than the one assigned to early adopters in Moore’s schema. The two should not be confused.

Early birds and pioneers

The article also discusses early birds. I cannot really tell from the article what distinguishes such people from enthusiasts, except perhaps that early birds get up before sunrise to stand in line for new product releases. These lines make for good pictures in news articles, which leads to free publicity for suppliers and a sense of excitement. Though buzz is not trivial (for marketing purposes), beyond that I am not entirely sure what other useful function early birds serve.

That gets us to the next key term, Pioneer, which seems to be close to an early bird, but really is not. The article in the Tribune talks about users being pioneers, and users getting arrows in the behinds for being risk-takers. This discussion was just plain confusing and confused.

Pioneer is a term that has been used in technology strategy for decades. (I recall first reading the term in a classic article by Richard Rosenbloom and Michael Cusumano, written in 1980 about the early VCR firms.). There is simply no ambiguity about its meaning.

The term, Pioneer, does not refer to a type of buyer. It refers to a type of supplier, one who makes it their business to offer new designs and new products in young technology markets.

Why distinguish between buyers and suppliers? Well, it is a fundamental distinction in economics. The pedantic professor in me could point out that the distinction has been in common use ever since Adam Smith first made it. 

More to the point, suppliers face very different motives than buyers, invest in very different directions, take very different types of calculated risks, and so on.

Besides, we already have two terms for the risk takers among technology buyers, early adopter and enthusiast. Do we need another?

Here is an illustration about why analysts make this distinction, and why the term pioneers is reserved for suppliers. In early technology markets, for example, it is important to understand how pioneering gets done, and by whom. Does an entrepreneur take on the role or does an established firm conduct the experiment? And why one and not the other? The evolution of market will depend on the answer to that question.

For example, Apple did not pioneer the MP3 market. It was pioneered by a bunch of small firms, such as Real Networks, and, notably, a few participants who pushed beyond recognizable legal boundaries, such as Napster. No large firm dominated the early market, and Apple was one of the first large firms to offer a market solution that integrated many of the best elements found among the inventions from the entrepreneurs. Apple had a brand name, however, and could operate at a national scale, and, crucially, they could cut some deals with distributors of music. As I have said elsewhere, Apple promised to give music distributors a way to fight the illegal downloading.

As it turned out, an integrated and legal approach got some traction, it differentiated Apple from others, and Apple built from there. Good for them.

As another example, the smart phone market also was not pioneered by Apple. It was pioneered by several PDA firms, such as Palm, entrepreneurial firms, such as the makers of the Blackberry, and, notably, by Microsoft, who pushed Windows CE into this space for years. To its credit, Apple borrowed technology and processes from its other businesses, and entered with some slick hardware. In addition, it entered with a novel approach (for the phone market) to developing and selling applications on a smart phone. The strategy was designed to leapfrog over what the established firms were doing, and, as it turned out, it worked. They had a phenomenal success in fostering consumer adoption.  Once again, good for them.

There is a common saying among entrepreneurial firms that pioneers often get the arrows. While the metaphor is a bit archaic in its reference to confrontations between settlers and native Americans, there is a point behind it (get it? A point… oh, never mind). In short, pioneering firms find the trails, explore the new commercial landscape, and confront hostile territory while doing it.

And, frankly, there is no particular reason why entrepreneurs have to be the only one getting the arrows. As the prior example in the smart phone market illustrates, Microsoft got many of the arrows in the smart phone market. They are big and established.

Focusing on firms gets at the key insight. Pioneers pay a high cost doing their learning. This is almost always more apparent in retrospect, when a later market participant can learn merely by observing what the pioneer did, infer the error, and gain a lesson for cheap. In short, technology markets display this pattern repeatedly: pioneers pay a high cost so later market actors can have a cheap lesson.

That is a key observation for strategic planning, and for technology policy. You can only get to that observation by being clear about what a pioneer does, and why.

Technology orphans

Finally, the Tribune article is missing the term it really needs. That term is technology orphan. An technology orphan is someone who adopts a young technology in anticipation of a long-lived support network from many suppliers. However, if that support network never materializes, the user becomes a technology orphan. That is, the adopter (typically it is an early adopter) receives less value from their adoption than they might have if that support network was there.

The article contains a number of cute examples of technologies that left many orphans among its early buyers. This included buyers of the Sony Betamax, the Laserdisc, the Minidisc, and HD-DVD. Those are good examples.

Here is why the article needed a precise definition for orphan. The reporters got carried away, confusing orphanage with other errors. A precise definition might have stopped that.

In their same list the reporter also include WebTV, the Segway, and the Microsoft Kin as examples of technology orphans. I am not persuaded that these are good examples of technology orphans. For example, I do not believe there are many orphans of the Kin, since almost nobody bought it before Microsoft saw they had a turkey on their hands and removed it from the shelves.

More to the point, I am more inclined to label WebTV, the Seqway, and the Kin as overpriced products with differentiated designs that found limited market appeal. That is not technology orphaning. It is merely unlucky pioneering or, even possibly, dumb pioneering. So it goes.

Why keep it straight?

Why keep all these definitions straight?

Labels have meaning. Labels carry baggage with them. Life is clearer if we use the right label for the right circumstance, and carry the right baggage to the right setting.

It is not just about clarity for its own sake. Clarity makes commerce run more efficiently. All across the globe technology executives and managers learn these terms and try to use them to help their firms make better decisions. Communication goes more smoothly if everyone agrees on the meaning of terms, and does not have to keep checking repeatedly with one another, clarifying definitions.

There is also one additional benefit: clear strategic thinking aids in planning. Firms do not generate good strategies if they do not ask the right question. It is not possible to ask the right question unless the person asking those questions refines them enough to make the question precise.

Yes, it is pedantic to be precise, but precise meanings are useful. Isn’t that a good reason to keep definitions straight?

7 Comments »

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    Comment by Hans — July 24, 2010 @ 7:49 am | Reply

  2. Shane, while I share your annoyance at bozo journalism, you give Geoff Moore too much credit. As he admitted in his later books, his chasm bell curve categories are stolen from Everett Rogers. He came up with the idea of slicing them into two — pre- and post-chasm — but the idea of the five categories is found in Chapter 6 of the 1962 edition of Diffusion of Innovations.

    Comment by Joel West — July 27, 2010 @ 1:16 am | Reply

    • You are right. Rogers deserves credit for developing the approach. Moore adapted it to high tech and popularized it. Thanks for the correction. Shane

      Comment by Shane Greenstein — July 27, 2010 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  3. I have not been this excited and motivated by a post for quite some time! Keep up the great job. Keep on inspiring the people!

    Comment by Nova Radio — January 13, 2011 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  4. Uz5aiL Yeah� I read and I understand that I do not understand anything what it is about:D

    Comment by Buy oem — September 23, 2011 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  5. Hey Shane – Some of these terms came up in a discussion at work. I googled “early adopter pioneer” and your post came up. Still relevant (and entertaining) in 2014. – Fred

    Comment by Fred Sandsmark — June 18, 2014 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

    • Nice to hear from you, Fred! Hope you are doing well. I am glad an old post continues to generate value for readers, and it is great fun to connect with old friends! Cheers, Shane

      Comment by Shane Greenstein — June 18, 2014 @ 7:22 pm | Reply


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