Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Costs and Dangers of Being an Early Adopter

Charles W. Moore - 2007.09.10

The perils of early adoption were underscored again last week when Apple dropped the price of the 8 GB iPhone by a whopping 33% just 68 days after it had been first put on sale. This steep a price cut that soon was to the best of my recollection unprecedented in any Apple product,* so it is an extreme example - precipitated presumably by slackening iPhone sales following the initial euphoric pent-up and hype-driven demand. Bloomberg news on Friday quoted Sandy Shen, research director at Gartner Inc. in Shanghai, observing that iPhone "have dried up, which is why Apple is cutting the price by so much, and so soon. This of course has the risk of alienating loyal customers, and that is why the company has apologized and offered the rebate.''

Rebate? Yes, more uncharted territory for Apple. Responding to understandable howls of outrage from early adopters who complained (with considerable justification!) that they had essentially paid a $200 premium two months ago or less for the dubious privilege of being late beta testers, on Thursday an open letter signed by Steve jobs was posted on the Apple website announcing that Apple had decided to offer every iPhone customer who purchased an iPhone from either Apple or AT&T - and who is not receiving a rebate or any other consideration - a $100 store credit towards the purchase of any product at an Apple Retail Store or the Apple Online Store. Details are still being worked out and should be posted on Apple's website this week.

Mr. Jobs noted that "even though we are making the right decision to lower the price of iPhone, and even though the technology road is bumpy, we need to do a better job taking care of our early iPhone customers as we aggressively go after new ones with a lower price. Our early customers trusted us, and we must live up to that trust with our actions in moments like these.

"We want to do the right thing for our valued iPhone customers. We apologize for disappointing some of you, and we are doing our best to live up to your high expectations of Apple."

Well, a $100 rebate credit is better than a poke in the eye with a dirty stick or Apple's customary supercilious stonewalling of consumer complaints, and I think it is a reasonable peace offering, but if I were an early iPhone adopter, the precipitous price cut would still sting.

Late Adoption

However, I'm not an early adopter by nature or temperament. I like to have an established frame of reference to go on before making purchase decisions, especially for big-ticket items, and I am virtually immune to impulse-buying.

PowerBook 5300

I bought my first PowerBook, a 5300, as a discounted leftover in November 1996. While the 5300 served me well (and my daughter likewise after she took it over, and still works now approaching its 11th anniversary), that purchase was one instance where I would almost certainly have done better as an early adopter; the PowerBook 1400 that immediately succeeded the 5300 in autumn '96 was an altogether better computer and would have justified the extra cash outlay.

On the other hand, the later revision 133 MHz and 166 MHz 1400s with their level 2 caches were much superior to the original entry-level 117 MHz model, so in a context limited to PowerBook 1400s, early adoption still wasn't the best deal.

PowerBook G3 Series

My next computer wasn't a leftover, but I did wait until the second "PDQ" version of the WallStreet G3 Series PowerBook had been out for a few months before placing my order. Actually, the original WallStreets were pretty solid and reliable computers from the get-go, save for some troublesome issues with the 13.3" screen models. My son and my nephew both purchased 233 MHz G3 Series PowerBooks identical to mine. Two of them are still in the family in working condition, passed on to other members, while the third was stolen.


By the time the widescreen Titanium PowerBook G4s debuted in January 2001, I was in the hunt again for a system upgrade. I thought the super-slim, metal-skinned TiBooks were way cool, but after the initial dazzle subsided, I also deduced that such a radically new design would probably have reliability issues, so I put in an order for a leftover PowerBook G3 Pismo from MacWarehouse Canada. As it turned out, their remaining stock of 500 MHz Pismos got overbooked with sales orders by a factor of six to one, and my order was one of the canceled majority.

I eventually did get my Pismo, ten months later, after detour purchase of a G4 Cube, which wasn't as satisfactory a substitute for a laptop as I had hoped it would be. I traded the nearly new Cube for a year-old used Pismo in pristine condition in October 2001. I still have it, now upgraded to 550 MHz G4 power and with an 8x SuperDrive, and I still use it every day for an hour or two. It wasn't a leftover, and certainly not a low-end laptop - being the highest-spec. Pismo Apple offered.

I liked the Pismo so much that I bought another one last spring and hope to continue using both for several years to come. They're getting a bit long in the tooth, but they run OS X "Tiger" surprisingly well and are still excellent utility computers for routine tasks.

As it turned out, the Titanium PowerBook did have some issues, although not so much with its internals (the original motherboard used in TiBooks was essentially the reliable architecture introduced ten months earlier with the Pismo, reengineered to support the G4 CPU and to fit inside the thinner titanium case), but things like lid hinges seizing and and tearing away from the thin metal case, battery contact problems, optical disks fouling the inside of the case, and paint prematurely wearing off services. I've never regretted going with the Pismo instead.

Dual USB iBook

By the time I bought my next laptop, the dual USB iBook had been in production for 19 months, although the 700 MHz G3 version I got was just a couple of months out. The original 500 MHz version 1 in this case was statistically a more reliable machine than the "revision C" unit I ended up purchasing, but despite that model's spotty reputation, mine has been completely trouble-free, now bearing down on its fifth anniversary.

I still have nothing to complain about in terms of dependability, but the 700 MHz G3 CPU, 16 megabytes of video RAM, and the system RAM maxed out to 640 megabytes weren't quite cutting it anymore performance-wise as it passed the three year mark as my main production machine.

Titanium PowerBook

Apple's switch to Intel chips was a complicating factor in my next upgrade decision. With the MacBook Pro having just been introduced at Macworld Expo 2006, and the MacBook replacement for the than nearly five-year-old white iBook design imminent, I was faced with the conundrum on whether to roll the early adopter dice and go with a Macintel 'Book or follow my cautious instincts and get one more Power PC machine.

After ruminating over it for a month or so, I went with my gut and ordered it a refurbished 1.33 GHz 17" Apple Certified Refurbished PowerBook from TechRestore, and hindsight confirms that the old gut was right.

The version 1 MacBook Pros challenged many of their owners with extreme heat, "mooing" and whining noises, a battery recall, and other issues. All of these problems have been addressed, but Intel Mac notebooks still run hotter than I prefer.

I'm in an area where there is still no broadband Internet availability, so the PowerBook's internal modem was another reason I chose it instead of a modem-less MacBook Pro. While a USB modem dongle is available, it adds another C$60 to the purchase price and hogs a precious USB port, as well as being much less elegant than a built-in modem for folks like me who remain stuck in the slow lane of the information highway.

The early MacBooks also had a "sudden shutdown" glitch. Everyone I know who bought a version 1 MacBook had problems with it, which was not an auspicious lookout, nor was the fact that refurbished MacBooks began showing up on the Apple Store website only a few weeks after the machine's May 2006 introduction (as had MacBook Pros earlier in the year, and there still seems to be a copious supply of most Macintel models as refurbs)

The subsequent revisions B and C of both machines with their Core 2 Duo processors have proved pretty reliable.

However, I've not regretted buying the big G4 AlBook, and after nearly 20 months of virtually flawless service, I have to say that this 17" machine is simply the best computer I've ever owned. If a computer ever epitomized the old Apple "It just works!" slogan, this is it. Upgrading through several versions of OS X 10.4 to the current 10.4.10 has been painless with no issues or problems encountered. Aside from the modest 512 MB of RAM soldered to its motherboard (I upgraded to 1.5 GB), the 1.33 GHz Big Al came pretty sumptuously equipped, with a RADEON 9600 graphics processor and 64 MB of video RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, a SuperDrive, gigabit ethernet, built-in Bluetooth, 802.11g wireless, FireWire 400 and 800, and USB 2.0.

And, of course, there is that glorious, 1440-by-900 display. That resolution is nothing to get up in the night and write home about these days and is now standard on the 15" MacBook Pro, but I've found it luxuriously expansive after years of working with 1024 x 768 and 800 x 600 laptop displays.

Folks who buy the early production version of any complex machine more often than not end up being late beta or prototype testers - and paying top dollar for the dubious privilege. I have a low tolerance for reliability problems, and I attribute the almost flawless dependability I've enjoyed with my PowerBooks and iBook over the years to resisting the urge to surf the bleeding edge.

* Editor's note: There was one price drop of similar magnitude nearly 15 years ago. Apple had introduced the 32 MHz 68030-based Macintosh IIvx in Sept. 1992 at $2,949 for the base configuration. When the 25 MHz 68040-based Centris 650 was introduced in Feb. 1993 using exactly the same enclosure, the IIvx was slashed to $1,899. That's a 35.6% price cut, the only one I know of that surpasses the 33.3% drop in the iPhone's price. dk