When Anna Palmer bought the original Apple iPad with Wi-Fi for $500, she already knew that a 3G version was coming out soon. But she had to have it. As an early adopter of technology, it’s in her DNA to buy a new gadget and then upgrade when a newer version is released. Indeed, when the new 3G model came out six weeks later, at $900, she bought that, too. To Palmer, the $500 she paid to use an iPad for six weeks was worth it.
"I like to have things first and see how they work, even if it costs more and delivers less than the final product," she says.
Palmer, 37, is among the wave of early adopters who will be out in force March 11 when the iPad 2 is released. Without them, tech gadgets might not advance as quickly, as developers learn mistakes when the early versions are in consumers’ hands.
Being the first kid on the block to have the newest toy to show off is certainly a prominent reason to buy ahead of the wave. But what else persuades people to sometimes wait hours in line or overspend for a new gadget that will lose much of its value in a year? Here are some of the reasons:
An Expensive Conversation-Starter
During the six weeks before getting the 3G iPad, Palmer says she got "lots of ogles and conversations with strangers" during that time.
"It gives you an air of expertise in technological matters to have the latest gadget," she said.
What did it cost her in the end? About $250, since she traded it temporarily to a friend who did work on her website. Some early adopters enjoy paying a premium because it gives a feeling of exclusivity, says Bruce D. Sanders, a consumer psychologist and retailing consultant. And that goes for more than just gadget geeks. Even farmers are into it. Iowa State University researchers have explored why certain farmers buy expensive innovative technologies while others don't. The answer was that if the farmer could afford it, the innovation gave him a head start and bragging rights.
Because the iPad was the first tablet worth having, the new, proud owner became a focal point of his or her community (however small — from the cubicle pod to the whole neighborhood), and made them the center of attention, says Harry Beckwith, author of Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy.
Appearance — a desire arising from the ego — is a major motivator for early adopters, Beckwith says. They want to be seen by their peers as leaders, as uniquely in-the-know and as able to afford the newest and best. It’s staking a claim to being at the top, a step ahead of the game, Beckwith says.
Jon Henshaw, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is an early adopter, admits to wanting something unique. "Everybody wants to be unique and special in some sense," he said.
Henshaw says buying the first iPad led to more work efficiency and to new clients whom he met while using the tablet. He doesn’t plan to buy the iPad 2, explaining that the improvements aren’t compelling enough for him.
Comedian Dan Nainan admits that while being an early adopter means essentially you’re a beta tester, he still will buy the iPad 2. The first iPad he bought actually made him money — he used it with a credit-card swiping device for when he sells his merchandise after shows. He plans to sell his first iPad on eBay and eat the loss, which more than made up for itself.
Newer is Better
The group of shoppers who want a gadget because it has the latest features, even if all of the problems haven’t been worked out yet, even have their own name beyond "early adopters." They are called "venturesome innovators," and are happy to be surprised and even tolerate failure, when a state-of-the-art feature doesn’t work as expected, says retailing consultant Sanders. He recommends retailers sell to venturesome innovators by showing them the most surprising things about an item.
There are also "respectable early adopters," Sanders says, who are more motivated by a desire to have a taste of where the world is heading. Sanders recommends to his clients that they sell to these shoppers by explaining how the item is an example of what the future holds.
When Palmer gets her new iPad 2, she plans to give her "old" one to her children, ages 4 and 5. The cost is worth it, she says. "I can justify it because there’s a crack in the screen of my current iPad," she says, only half joking.
Another way to look at it is that life is short and while everyone would love to have an expensive car to enjoy and show off, a $500 shiny gadget is easier to get. "They can’t have the Lamborghini, but they can have the latest iPad," says Henshaw, who is co-founder and product manager at Raven Internet Marketing Tools. "Gadgets are priced in a way that is attainable — at least for people who have a job."
The Early Bird Gets the Deal
As a developer of applications, Palmer can claim tech gadgets as business expenses. But despite all of the money she’s spent on tech gear — about $5,000 a year — she’s also gained by getting benefits that tech companies sometimes only offer to initial buyers. When she bought the first iPhone, she was given unlimited data, which she now uses on her iPad.
When TiVo came out, she bought the initial box for $400 and got free lifetime service. Palmer has had her TiVo service transferred to six subsequent boxes for free, while others pay $15 a month for the service. The deal for others was ended when the second TiVo box was introduced.
Chance to Learn From Mistakes
Being a beta tester and working out the kinks of a new product is enticing for early adopters, and this stage of sales helps companies learn from their mistakes. Unless they can sell the products they once loved so much, early adopters can end up with their early purchases staring them in the face.
Palmer, who was an early adopter since childhood, said her biggest mistake cost her $8,500, when she bought a 60-inch HDTV before any HD channels were available in the area of Vermont where she lives. She ended up getting rid of it before HD arrived in her area. "There was this enormous, huge, ugly thing and there was no use for it," she says. Hopefully she’ll never make a similar mistake again, although being an early adopter is in her blood.
"I like to be the first at things," Palmer says. "I’m early for everything in life, too. Like, I’m early for meetings."