Confessions of a Late Adopter

I love gadgets, I really do. But unlike your typical fanboy or -girl who can be found standing in line at Best Buy or the Apple Store days before a new product’s release, I’m more likely to be found trolling the aisles of the local thrift store, surfing eBay, or scrounging through the clearance bins at Office Max looking for my gadget fix. I’d like to say it’s merely economic, and that’s part of it, but the reality is this (cue dramatic music):

I’m a late adopter.

Like I said, I love gadgets. I’m the go-to guy for any tech-related questions in my family, and carry a few pounds of silicon-and-LED goodness on my person at all times. The thing is, the shiny new gadget I’m oohing and aahing over is liable to be a year out two out of date.

Why is that, I hear you ask? There are a few of good reasons I can think of to refrain from buying the latest thing, and even to buy one or more generations removed from a company’s current line-up.

  • Cost: The most obvious reason to “buy old” is cost. Once an item has been replaced by a more up-to-date product, its price drops significantly. If I can get it used (which in the case of gadgets often means “kept in a drawer for three years and forgotten about”) I can save even more. I can’t usually justify the price of new gizmos to fulfill my gadget-lust, but I can usually spare the eBay price a year or two later.
  • Bugs: New products, especially when they break new ground, are often riddled with problems; waiting to buy lets the manufacturers and the forums and the howto sites catch up with fixes, patches, and workarounds.
  • Hacks: Users often find ways to add new functions to gadgets that the manufacturers never dreamed of. But new software, new uses for old software, sometimes entirely new operating systems take time to be developed. For example, there’s a version of Linux you can install on an iPod, but it has to be an older-generation iPod. (In fact, it seems that every gadget gets its own version of Linux after about 2 years. Call it Dustin’s Law.)

Let me offer a couple of examples. The best laptop I ever had was a Compaq Armada 4200 I bought for my ex. (She wasn’t my ex at the time.) I bought it about 3 or 4 years old for around $200, with a trackball mouse (I hate trackpads), 32 MB memory and a 6 gig hard drive, running Windows 95. More than enough juice for the word processing and Internet surfing she did. Plus it was less than a foot wide and about an inch thick, and the battery doubled as a carrying handle. I liked playing with hers so much I bought another one for myself. Then I bought another one for her friend, and another for her parents.

Here’s another example: I’m writing this post on an AlphaSmart 3000 I picked up in a thrift store over the summer for $20.00. The AlphaSmart is essentially a stand-alone keyboard with a 4-line, black-on-grey LCD screen and a little memory. You type stuff in, connect it to a PC with a USB cable, hit “send” and it literally types your document into whatever program you’ve opened on the computer. Intended for use in elementary schools, the AlphaSmart is small, light, tough as heck, ultra-simple, and it runs forever on 3 AA batteries. It’s the ultimate “monotasker”; it does one thing and one thing only, and because of that, it’s a favorite tool of writers who want the ability to write anywhere without the distractions and power demands of a laptop.

On the other hand, I bought my Treo 680 the week it was released. I’ve always been a late adopter with my Palms, from my first Palm IIIe bought as a closeout in 2000 to my Handspring Visor bought on eBay to my Treo 180 (also bought on eBay). I did buy a Zire 72 when they were still on the market, breaking the late-adoption pattern and setting a bad precedent — I had few problems with the Zire and thought Palm could pull it off again with the Treo 680.

I was wrong. The 680 has been plagued with problems — poor battery life, weird phone behavior, coming on by itself at apparently random times, and so on. Some of these problems have been addressed, though nothing has made it live up to the promise that made me a Palm user in 2000. If I’d waited, I would have seen the forum postings and the blog articles that panned the unit — even as it was getting positive reviews from the standard tech sites. I’d have seen the near-total silence on Palm’s part as its users grew more and more vocally outraged about the faults that made using the Treo 680 so unpleasant. In short, I’d have bought something else and saved the $200.

Bill Maher recently joked that the iPhone’s early adopters, the folks who paid through the nose for their phones only to see the price dropped 2 months later, had paid a “nerd tax” for the privilege of showing off their shiny new gadgets before anyone else could get their hands on one. I’m not a nerd tax kind of guy, I guess — I don’t really care if my gadget belt makes others green with envy, so long as my tools do the job I need them to do. My feeling is that whatever gadget I’m looking at worked well enough a year or two ago, so unless the newest version is a revolutionary advance that offers me a must-have function that nobody else is offering, why not go with the older version?

Look at iPods — a few years ago, folks were crazy over their iPods with photo capability. The devices themselves haven’t changed just because newer ones came out that play video or have wifi — they do the same job just as well today as they did then. If I want a quality device that plays music and maybe shows a picture or two, why wouldn’t I go with the old one?

In the end, I suppose I’m advocating that we look away from the promises marketers make and think more deeply about what we need our gadgets to do. The folks who make this stuff have a lot invested in coaxing a new purchase out of us every year or so, but my needs — and probably yours — don’t actually change that much, that quickly. This isn’t to say I never buy anything new, but I think carefully about whether I can fill the same need with an older, cheaper device. It’s not settling — I don’t accept less than what I need. But I decide what those needs are, not a manufacturer or marketer who’s made a place for me in their fiscal planning.

And that’s the point — know your needs and meet them as efficiently as possible. A lot of gadgets seem to be designed as an end in themselves — you don’t use them, they use you. Knowing what your needs are — whether as a professional in your field of work or as an individual desiring some form of entertainment or whatever your case may be — well enough to select the right tools might well lead you to be first in line at a launch-day event, but that’s a considered choice. Which is a world of difference from being there just because it’s new, and new must be good, right? Often, older isn’t only good enough, it’s better.

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