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Finding and Buying Technology’s Sweet Spot

Posted on Friday, December 10th, 2010 at 12:22 pm (0) comments

By Gabe Goldberg (SD user GabeGold)

Technology Then & Now by ilovebutter
Technology Then & Now by flickr user ilovebutter.

A nifty theory describing how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread calls people innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, or laggards. It examines thought processes, motivations, economics, and freedom of choice leading to five stages of the adoption process.

While the categories are interesting, it’s a bit too academic and theoretical for real life. First, most people don’t have one mindset for all purchases. And second, I’d call people leading the parade pioneers or bleeding edge volunteers, and I see people at the tail end as Luddites or refuseniks, or just not wanting to be bothered by change. The latter group must balance the “if it’s not broken, leave it alone” approach against missing out on benefits of progress.

The challenge for majoritarians — whether early or late in that group — is optimizing purchases. It’s nice avoiding overpriced, faddish, scarce, new twinkly gadgets or most Release 1.0 products, but also shunning obsolete bargain-bin has-beens.

Buying strategy used depends on one’s goals, needs, interests, skills/knowledge, plans/willingness to replace or retain, risk tolerance, spirit of adventure, budget, “need” to be first-on-block with new stuff, etc. Slickdealers seeking bargains, discounts, and price-performing purchases likely already analyze decisions this way.

Different items warrant distinct strategies. There’s merit in replacing cell phones every two years to pick up new features, especially when they’re free with contract renewal. Reliable printers, on the other hand, can seemingly run forever, outperforming lesser models shoddily manufactured to be disposable. And while it’s tempting to replace computers when new models and operating systems are introduced — especially as they’re ever-cheaper — the burden of installing and configuring can be daunting.

The adoption curve determines prices paid, with innovators paying a premium and needing to evaluate what’s it worth being on the leading edge. In fact, it can be hard finding truly bleeding-edge technology, with other countries sometimes getting it first — e.g., cell phone models and features appearing in Asian countries years before introduction in the US. And invitation-only or public beta testing can be fun/worthwhile/risky for innovators, with outcomes not known upfront.

Risk- and change-averse laggards can miss new-product features/benefits/productivity for years or forever by staying on sidelines. But sometimes being a technology caboose makes vendors tire of supporting old products and offer upgrade discounts to end a painful legacy product burden.

Interestingly, innovators and laggards can both be lonely, having trouble getting help, support, and updates for things that are too new to be mainstream, or too old to still be widely used. Attitudes towards them differ, though, with innovators often envied, and laggards mocked.

But no matter what sort of consumer you are — pioneer or stick-in-the-mud — it’s worth finding the sweet spot for whatever you’re buying. Technical products — computers, cameras, printers, cell phones — all have detailed specifications. A bit of analysis mapping alternatives’ costs against their capabilities/capacity/performance
often reveals an interesting hockey-stick shaped curve. The curve’s knee — where it slopes sharply upward — is where “more bang for the buck” (good) becomes “more bucks for the bang” (bad!). For example, new processors usually sell for a price premium, while one generation behind current — having reached peak economies of manufacturing scale — is often discounted.

If something’s price trends downward, and it’s easy to upgrade, don’t buy more of it than you need. For example, configure a new PC with enough memory for anticipated work, but don’t bulk it up just for bragging rights. Make sure your motherboard can take more memory — without trashing your initial sticks! — so you can fill it out when needed, for less money, while delaying the upgrade cost. Optimize processor power differently, buying as much as is reasonable based on needs and knee-of-curve thinking, since it can only be replaced, not upgraded. While almost any current computer, as long as it’s not a third-tier manufacturer’s rock-bottom model, will serve most needs, you should still check specs for shortcuts and oddities that will shorten its life or limit upgrade paths.

When seeking a particular product, don’t be distracted by add-ons just because they’re there. If you want a camera, you may not be happy with a single gadget that’s a phone/email box/web surfer/personal scheduler AND, by the way, also a camera. Similarly, if you want a printer, buying one which includes a copier/scanner/FAX may not get you best-of-breed for any component and risks needing them all replaced when one breaks or needs upgrading.

Technologies like computers, cameras, audio/video gear, and cell phones change so fast that it’s important to review installation and usage factors, along with features of different generations, before leaping on board. For example, TiVo 2 needs an external cable box and sufficient non-box cable channels to make its two tuners worthwhile. But TiVo 3 with two CableCard slots better handles most cable companies’ emphasis on digital content and deprecation of analog channels.

Comparing cell phone models is harder because the market is distorted by carriers subsidizing device costs in exchange for contracts with nasty termination terms. Here, the sweet spot can be when the unsubsidized price of a still-manufactured device is $100 or less — meaning that it’s popular and reliable enough that it will likely last a while. And seek units with standard connectors so that if a charger or cable is lost it takes a commodity replacement rather than an overpriced proprietary manufacturer-unique mutant.

Finally, “sweet spot” can also refer to where to buy: a product that a store or manufacturer won’t stand behind or accept returned can be a painful and expensive nightmare, no matter how inexpensive it was. So check support/return/exchange policies before making large purchases. Consult vendor ratings online or ask trusted and experienced colleagues; I’ve had good experiences with Costco.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email slickdeals@gabegold.com when you use it.