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2010 August 9 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Being First To Buy New Tech Toys Can Be Risky Business

The recent brouhaha surrounding the latest version of the popular iPhone sheds interesting light on the early adoption of new technologies.

Early adapters jump at the opportunity to use the latest and greatest digital tools and toys, from PC operating systems such as Windows 7 to digitized phones such as Apple’s iPhone 4.

Problem is, the cutting edge can become the bleeding edge when you have to deal with frustrating bugs that should have been caught in the “beta” or testing phase.

With the iPhone 4, the main complaints have been dropped calls and weak reception when holding the phone a certain way. This state-of-the-art “smartphone” functions not only as a cell phone but also a video phone, movie viewer, book reader, gaming device, Web viewer, email device, digital still camera, digital video camera and more.

Soon after the iPhone 4’s release in June, the problems surfaced. Consumer Reports gave the product its “not recommended” rating. Others called for its recall.

At the time of this writing, Apple has resisted recall demands, which would cost it a whopping $1.5 billion, according to Bernstein Research, an investment research firm. Instead, Apple has curiously suggested as a fix that customers not touch the phone on its lower left when using it, which is difficult for lefties.

Others have found a better workaround, using duct tape, the universal cure-all. Taping over the antenna opening, reportedly, can mostly solve the problem.

The ultimate solution, according to some, is to avoid buying the product in the first place, same with other just-released products incorporating new and under-tested technologies. Instead, according to this strategy, let others be the guinea pigs. Consider buying after the product has been on the market for several months and the major bugs have been eliminated.

As with previous versions of the iPhone, the iPhone 4 may well turn out to be a fine product. And it’s far from the only much-hyped product to experience these kinds of opening-day jitters. In some cases such products overcame their initial problems while in other cases they were eventually discontinued.

Among the worst offenders through the years have been Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, released in 2001 and beset with security woes, PointCast Network, a mid-1990s “push technology” service that delivered news and information while slowing down PCs and overwhelming corporate networks, and Syncronys SoftRAM, a 1995 software release that promised to double your computer’s memory only to have that claim criticized as “false and misleading” by the FTC.

The importance of new technology is undeniable. One aspect of progress results when investment in research and development leads to more effective ways of doing things. As a society we value this. A study a few years ago by the Pew Internet & American Life Project on information technology described Americans’ love affair with technology as one of the defining characteristics of our culture.

Early adapters of new technology are typically, though not always, younger people. The Pew study labeled the heaviest information technology users as “young tech elites.”

But new technologies don’t become mainstream until other sectors of society embrace them. The telephone, for instance, was first used largely by urban male businessmen, but rural women who used it to chat up friends and family made it popular. Like computers, radios were first used by young male hobbyists before others found uses for them.

With new technology, the wow factor is alluring. Trying out the latest and greatest can be like taking the wrapping off of a gift and seeing something truly amazing.

But if you want to add some rationality to the process, before buying tap into the collective wisdom of how well a new product delivers on its promises. You can read reviews in magazines and newspapers, often written by those who have tested out pre-release versions.

Further, you can go online to seek out opinions in discussion groups, consumer evaluation websites and blogs. In office and similar settings you can get informal advice from those whose expertise you trust.

Organizations are typically more cautious than individuals about new products, with many deferring until the cost-benefit is clear. Many pay consultants to do a formal analysis.

To some people, the old saw applies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This can be taken to an extreme when people get stuck in their ways, actively avoiding anything unfamiliar even when it would make their work or personal lives more productive or enjoyable.

Others jump in whenever something new comes along. Perhaps the best approach is somewhere in between.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached
at reidgold@comcast.net or
www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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