Curse of the Early Adopters

There's something inherently appealing about being the first on your block with an ingenious new gadget. To own a piece of hardware before anyone else has even heard of it--how cool is that? The quest for the newest and (presumably) best technology, however, is a perilous one--stimulating and enticing, but one which can easily waste money and time.

There are a few things you ought to know about your new "bleeding edge" technology purchase: First, you've just opened a local branch of the manufacturer's support department, right there in your building. You are chief beta tester; you will be loading and testing the patches, fixes and mods from the developer. And you aren't getting paid to do it. In fact, you can plan on scribbling "DOWNTIME" and "CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE" all over your schedule.

The second tidbit is this: Brilliant or not, no one will recognize the product by name, nor insist on booking it based on reputation. By definition, this technology is unproved and unknown, so you'd better have a pretty good scheme for making it earn money.


Many may claim to be early adopters, but the proof lies in the technological trash you've gathered unto yourself. For all our own big talk, we've got a veritable Museum of Ancient Video Production around here, and are known far and wide for squeezing every last spark of life out of a hand-me-down tape deck or camera. Still, we owned an early digital production switcher, the AVS Integra, because it was the cleverest and most complete product we could find; we had an off-brand character generator based on a then-unheard-of RISC processor long before Apple launched its first RISC engine, the PowerMac. In both cases, our purchases earned money for us, without question; but when the end-of-life came, the $135,000 switcher, without a famous brand name to inflate its resale value, sold for $600 on eBay. C'est la vie.

One of the factors which makes early adoption attractive is a facility's notion of "brand independence." With a primary concentration in program production, we've always felt that we weren't required to buy the most popular, market-leading systems; in our minds, we'd rather buy the good stuff than the popular stuff. Back when nonlinear editing was in its infancy, we eschewed the purple-triangle brand of gear in favor of the other startup brand which, we felt, offered better quality. Since we hadn't really hung out our shingle as an edit facility, we weren't too concerned about using brand names to attract customers--and we were free to choose products and brands which nobody knew.

Our latest foray into unproven technology was actually among the least risky purchases we've made--or so it seemed. Who would have thought that the mainstream, brand-new MacPro, long-awaited as the Intel-powered successor to the Mac G5 family, would be so market-unready? For us, the lack of MacPro-enabled drivers for any of several mainstream Fibre Channel host adapters meant that our new powerhouse edit system couldn't access our shared storage via its Fibre Channel network. In other words, no editing.

To be fair, the competitive pressures of today's computer industry are such that a new design like the MacPro needs to be rushed out to market to ensure an appropriate financial return. But Apple has a checkered past with regard to third party products. At one point, the company was notorious for refusing to share pre-release hardware with developers, who hoped to have drivers re-written and validated in time for release; I had one firm's chief technologist tell me that when a pre-release G4 finally arrived, a mere two weeks before launch, it looked like Frankenstein's monster, festooned with coils of bus wire, and contained prior versions of most key circuits and processors--not very useful for hardware test purposes.

Fast-forward to 2006: One of the affected Fibre Channel manufacturers told me that the best they could do regarding the MacPro drivers was to order one from a retailer once shipping began--no special accommodations for third parties.

To compound matters, Apple has famously insisted that all the technology its customers will ever need has already been bound up inside that lovely aluminum shell; to insist, foolishly, on adding third-party circuitry (like Fibre Channel adapters and video I/O cards) indicates an attitudinal fault on the part of the customer. Hence, the urgency most folks would like to see applied to third-party driver development may not seem as compelling in Cupertino.


Before the Mac faithful once more take torch and pitchfork in hand, let me clearly state that I look forward to using my MacPro to its fullest potential. It's a brilliant design, and a joy to use. In fact, that goes for pretty much any early-adopter hardware we've bought; despite the trials and tribulations, the patches and fixes, we've almost always been right--the technology was every bit as astounding as we thought. We won't stop being early adopters, but after a couple dozen times around the block... we'd better understand what we're in for.