The Late Adopter

I don't remember exactly how my PlayStation 2 broke, but I do remember when it happened. It was in 2005, a couple months before God of War was released. I priced out repairs for my system, and I remember that they were prohibitively expensive (more than $100 was prohibitive on my meager budget). So, instead of repairing mine or buying a new PS2, I stuck with the systems I had: an Xbox and a Nintendo GameCube. Yup, I had all three major systems, plus a Sega Dreamcast I had never quite retired. I was an early adopter. I bought all the major systems, sometimes at launch, but usually either after the release of the first game I really wanted to own or the first price drop. But now I'm here to tell you that I have seen the error of my ways.

There is a common misperception in the technology world that gadgets get less interesting and capable as they age. Of course, some gadgets get updates and system upgrades that add features or streamline performance, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about a gadget that is old, past its update cycle, and made obsolete by new products on the market or just around the bend. Would you buy an original iPod today? Probably not. A VHS player? No chance. But in a way, there's a benefit to these older products.

I recently wrote a column advocating Blu-Ray as a fine holiday gift purchase. Well, this week I put my money where my mouth is and I bought a PlayStation 3. I had been holding off for a long while, longer than I've ever waited on buying a new console. In fact, I had pretty much decided I would never buy a PS3, that I would skip this generation altogether.

But now, a few things came together. I wanted a Blu-Ray player for the best quality movies. I was tired of paying Microsoft yearly fees for online gaming, a feature that is built into the PS3's cost. The price for a PS3 has finally dropped to truly competitive levels, and there are some great deals on bundles and packages.

I bought the PS3, and the first game I purchased was the God of War collection. It comes with both of the PS2 God of War games and costs less than $30. The new God of War III? It's 9 months old, and I got it for $30, which is about half its original launch price. I started at the beginning with the first game, a title that is 5 years old and a generation behind. How did it look? Awesome. High framerate. Textures and complicated effects aren't on par with the best modern titles, but it still holds up as a fantastic looking game.

Even better, it's a blast to play. This got me thinking about being an early adopter. Is God of War any less fun for me to play because it's 5 years old? Of course not. Though I might be behind on PlayStation titles, I've been buying the top tier Xbox games for the past 5 years, so I know how good games have gotten. But this game didn't feel dated, the experience hadn't diminished over time. The graphics felt dated, but it still looks modern and cool.

Games are works of art. Art is an expression of the time and place in which it is created, for sure, but art should also transcend time. The best art is both a snapshot of a moment in history and completely timeless, all at once. After my experience with God of War, I might never buy a new title at launch again. There seems to be no need. If it's a good game, it will be a good game in 9 months, or in 5 years. It will also be cheaper, perhaps packed with some extras, and with the bugs and kinks worked out.

There are some problems this might cause. If you love multiplayer online gaming, I'm sure the crowd of competitors is largest around launch, then dwindles over time. This isn't my cup of tea, I prefer playing with people sitting next to me, or playing solo in my down time. I also suspect that the best games will still draw a multiplayer crowd months, if not years later.

Also, if Bungie launched a new Halo title (which will probably never happen), I would buy it in the first few days. But that's not just because I'm a Halo fanboy. It's because I've been playing those games for years, and I've already finished the last title in the series. Twice. On the hardest level. I'm ready for the next step.

If I had waited and purchased the first Halo right now? I'd probably be just as happy with it. Then, for the next several months, I could slowly play through the five or six Halo titles available, buying them for half the price, and enjoying them no less. If only I had waited.

I wonder how far I can take this philosophy. I wonder for what other products, especially in technology, I can move from being an early adopter to a late adopter. Cell phones seem to be the most obvious category. Phones are getting faster and more feature-packed with every new iteration, but if you're just entering the smartphone world, you'll probably be pleased with the lowest end product. When you're stepping up from an LG enV or a Samsung Rant, even the most basic, inexpensive HTC phone, iPhone or Droid is going to feel like a new world. It's only those of us who carry the latest and greatest who can really discern the difference between today's best device and the ones coming out tomorrow.

I think the same is true of computers, especially over the last few years. Computers have gotten more powerful, but I think we actually need less processing power than we did years ago. Hard core gaming interest on PCs is at an all-time low. Most people are happy simply using their computer's Web browser and Microsoft Office, neither of which are power-hungry apps.

My wife is using the MacBook Air I bought on the day that computer was launched, more than 3 years ago. When she heard about the new MacBook Airs that were recently launched, she asked if they would be worthwhile for her. No, they certainly would not be. If she needed a new computer today, I would be more likely to pick up an older computer for her rather than go for the latest and greatest. For myself, I regret giving up my older MacBook Pro for the newest model. I miss the old trackpad button, the removable battery. I haven't seen significant improvement in performance, reliability or features.

So, when the next big thing hits the market, my advice is to wait a while, or buy the outgoing last generation machine. When the new tablets with WiMAX and LTE support hit the market, wait a while. The operating systems need to mature, and there will be significant usability issues that will be fixed over time. The prices will drop, and the networks are not yet mature. WiMAX will probably get faster, with better coverage. Verizon may figure out an acceptable pricing model for LTE. In any case, I suspect early adopters are going to feel burned for buying in on day one.

When a thinner, lighter iPad launches with a built-in camera up front, don't buy it, especially if you've never owned a tablet before. Buy the old one instead. It's great fun, and surprisingly useful. You won't miss the lack of video chat. The feature is too new, both socially and technologically, to be useful yet on cellular networks or portable devices.

In fact, if you've never owned an iPad, you won't miss anything the new device has that the old one lacks. The need to own the newest and best product feeds itself. If you buy the latest device, you're acutely aware of everything you now have that you didn't before, and this is not a good thing. The products that are great today are going to be great in a few months, or even a few years, to people who never owned them. You don't know what you're missing, and most of the time it's just better not knowing.