Hundreds of customers outside of an Apple store

New tech products are usually expensive, semi-useless, and buggy. When describing the feeling of first-generation tech, a certain phrase comes to mind. No, it isn’t “buyers remorse,” it’s “early adopter pain.”

Early adopter pain is difficult to describe, but it’s necessary for technological and social progress. It’s like the pain that comes after a long run mixed with the rush of gambling. And like gambling, early adopter pain is expensive.

But what makes someone an early adopter, and how is early adopter pain necessary for progress?

The Five Stages of Technology Adoption

A simple Google search for “early adopters” shows that, as a concept, early adopters are very important to businesses. In fact, they’re practically the deciding factor for a product’s success. According to Everett Rogers, professor of communication studies at the University of New Mexico, there are five stages to technology adoption that form a marketing bell curve. In his book Diffusions of Innovations, Rogers describes how early adopters are practically the first and most crucial stage of a product’s life-cycle, even though early adopters make up a very small market share.

According to Rogers’ 5 stages to technology adoption, innovators are the absolute first investors in a new product, even though they make up the smallest market share. These innovators tend to have a lot of financial resources, so they can drop a lot of money on new products, even if they’re half-baked or doomed to fail. But innovators don’t have a lot of influence on the public; they’re just the rich people that invest in new ideas at the drop of a hat.

Graph showing the 5 States of Technology Adoption per Rogers Everett
Groups of Consumers Adopting New Tech (Blue), Market Share (Yellow) Rogers Everett – Diffusion of innovations (1962)

Early adopters are the second phase of Rogers’ adoption curve, and they’re the people in whom we’re most interested. According to Rogers, early adopters tend to be young, trendy, and well-to-do. Early adopters (in the field of tech) are usually journalists or YouTubers that have a lot of influence over average consumers, and they’re often the first place where consumers find new information.

As you can imagine, early adopters need to be critical of new products to maintain credibility. If your favorite nerdy YouTuber started waving around some stupid new product and claimed that it’s the future of technology, you’d hopefully hold less trust in their opinions. As a result, manufacturers tend to cater to early adopters by making new products look luxurious, vocalizing the product’s potential, or by adapting to early adopter opinions at the beginning of a product’s life-cycle.

Once a product reaches Early Majority or Late Majority, it’s considered successful. These categories indicate that average consumers have started to adopt the product and that it’s probably permeated through most of society. When a product starts to reach early or late majority adoption, manufacturers start to market it as “easy to use” or “universal.” Desktop computers are a good example of this. Once average people started buying desktops, businesses started developing tools like the computer mouse and clean GUI’s to make things more appealing.

Laggards are the last people to adopt a product, and they represent a small market share. People that are out of date or elderly usually fall in this category, and businesses (smartphone manufacturers, for example) usually aim products toward laggards as an afterthought.

We’ve All Experienced Early Adopter Pain

We know what early adopters are, but what is early adopter pain? Essentially, early adopter pain is all of the annoying crap that comes with a product early in its life-cycle. Even if you aren’t a big-spending technology nerd, you’ve probably experienced early adopter pain at some point. We are all early adopters in some field, whether it’s TV shows, music, books, cars, or shoes. And of course, websites like Kickstarter have made early adoption much more affordable and universal.

The first generation fitbit and pebble watches

Chances are, you’ve endorsed a product (or even an artist or musician) that has some flaws, simply because you’ve seen its potential. You go through some pain to show your support, and you’ve probably dealt with all kinds of hiccups and disappointments, but once a product’s potential is met, it’s adopted by the average consumer.

For better or worse, the majority doesn’t always adopt a product. Sometimes the potential of a product isn’t reached, or it’s too niche for the average consumer. When you endorse a new product, you’re taking a bit of a gamble—especially if you pay money to show your interest or support. That’s the curse of early adopter pain; it doesn’t always work out.

There’s one more interesting aspect to early adopter pain. Sometimes you see a lot of potential in a product, and you dream of how it will be used in the future. But it seems to become successful for the wrong reasons. Avenues of progress are squashed—just like that. A good example of this is when an artist or musician “sells out,” or goes in a disappointing direction for the sake of majority adoption. The same thing happens in tech. Imagine if smartphones became toys for children instead of portable computers, and all the adults stuck with flip phones. Hey, you never know.

Think of the iPad, or the Apple Watch

Apple might be the best example of early adopter pain. Not because Apple’s products are bad (they’re great), but because Apple strives for innovation. When people buy the first generation of a new Apple product, they have to go through some early adopter pain. New products can be expensive, void of useful features, and they can be a bit buggy.

You may remember things differently, but the first generation iPad wasn’t perfect. It had no cameras, no multitasking features, and hardly any apps for businesses or gamers. Users reported that the first iPad would overheat, and that strange bugs and glitches would make apps and menus inaccessible.

Essentially, the first iPad was like a giant luxury iPod touch, and most people used it exclusively for bedtime web browsing and streaming. But early adopters saw a lot of potential in the iPad, and now tablets are more than a billion tablet users worldwide.

Another product to think about is the Apple Watch. The first Apple Watch was, basically, a watch that vibrated when you got a call or a text message. But early adopters loved the product and saw a lot of potential for future use. Now, Apple is marketing its Apple Watch Series 4 as a health and fitness wearable that anyone can benefit from. It can even perform an ECG.

Sometimes, Products Don’t Make it Past Early Adopters

Early adopters are great for popularizing new products and inspiring manufacturers to march toward progress, but they’re also good for keeping half-baked and premature products off the shelves.

Remember Google Glass? Early adopters saw a lot of potential in smart glasses, but one thing became clear very quickly. Google Glass is still too weird, expensive, and underdeveloped to become a majority product.

Close-up of Google Glass

Now, you could argue that Google Glass became the laughing stock of smart tech before it could get past an early adopter phase. But it’s currently being used for niche applications in warehouses and factories, which proves that sometimes a product needs a purpose before it can violently take control of our lives.

RELATED: Google Glass Isn't Dead; It's the Future of Industry

Bending Backwards for Foldable Phones

When you look at Samsung’s “revolutionary” new foldable phone, it’s okay to be skeptical. You don’t have to buy one right away, and most people can’t. The $1980 price tag isn’t aimed at average consumers. It’s aimed at innovators and early adopters.

These early adopters are interested in innovation (or status symbols), and they’ll test the foldable phone market for you. They’ll show manufacturers the potential of these new devices, and they’ll help drive progress in a brand new market. Oh, and they’ll deal with all the early adopter pain. If these foldable phones fall apart quickly or suck entirely, you won’t have to deal with it.

The same thing that happened to iPads and Apple Watches will (hopefully) happen to foldable phones. They’ll start out clunky, expensive, and semi-useless, but they’ll slowly become useful and find their way into the hands of average consumers.

RELATED: Here Are All the Foldable Phones Announced at MWC so Far

Sources: BEME News, On Digital Marketing

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »