One summer day nearly three years ago, I waited in line for 12 hours outside a San Francisco shopping mall so I could get my hands on the first iPhone. Some people romanticize waiting in line for gadgets, concert tickets, and other scarce goods—they see lines as an egalitarian way to separate poseurs from true fans, and they revel in the camaraderie built among their fellow line-waiters. Not me. I hated everything about it —the deprivation, the extended exposure to overly friendly strangers, and the soul-crushing boredom (I didn’t have an iPhone to bide my time). Mostly, though, I hated the obvious idiocy of waiting for an expensive, potentially buggy first-generation device that none of us had even had a chance to touch. And we were doing it willingly!
I was reminded of my iPhone line-waiting nightmare last Friday, when I woke up early and logged on to Apple’s Web site to pre-order the iPad. If all goes well, I’ll receive the new tablet computer on Saturday, April 3. Once again, I will be able to call myself an early adopter, and this time I won’t even have had to wait in line. Yet even though I’ve got a good excuse for getting Apple’s stuff early—it’s my job to tell people whether the iPad sucks—I still feel a little guilty about it. Buying a gadget just so you can have it first is a terrible idea, right?
There’s certainly ample historical evidence that buying tech early isn’t smart. The first generations of new devices are usually more expensive, more buggy, and offer fewer features than later generations. If you bought an iPod on Nov. 10, 2001, the day it was released, you would have paid $400 for 5 GB of space for your music. Within the first year, Apple dropped the price to $300 and released new 10 GB and 20 GB models that used a better, touch-sensitive scroll wheel. iPods have continued to advance rapidly ever since: Today you can buy the top-of-the-line model, the Touch, with 64 GB of storage for $350. In other words, today’s best iPod is $50 cheaper than 2001’s only iPod, and it does far, far more. The iPhone has followed the same trajectory. People who waited in line for the first version paid $500 for the cheapest model; just two months later, Apple slashed the price by $200, angering the line-waiters. (CEO Steve Jobs later apologized to customers and offered early adopters a $100 Apple Store credit.)
If a better, cheaper version is always around the corner, why should you ever hurry? The problem with such a philosophy is that, at its extreme, it results in paralysis; if you’re always waiting for next year’s device, you’ll never buy anything. At some point you’ve got to accept that tomorrow’s cheaper, more advanced versions aren’t around today—and then go to the store and see what’s available in the present.
Lucky for you, buying today’s gadget is no longer so precarious. A year and a half ago, I argued that we were witnessing the death of planned obsolescence in the tech industry. Not long ago, every product’s features were fixed in time. But the Internet has become something like a fountain of youth for gadgets. To quote myself: “Just like Meryl Streep, your devices will now dazzle you as they age. They’ll gain new functions and become easier to use, giving you fewer reasons to jump to whatever hot new thing is just hitting the market.” Look at just one recent example: If you bought Google’s Nexus One when it went on sale in January, you would have been outraged at the absence of a multitouch support on the phone’s Web browser and maps program. But through a software update a month later, Google added that function to every phone that had already been sold—early adopters didn’t miss a thing.
To be sure, there are still some products you should hold off on buying. Last year I warned people to stay away from e-book readers, and a couple years ago, I cautioned against Blu-ray players. That’s because both categories depend on what economists call “network effects“—they’ll only become useful if a lot of other people pick them up. You have no idea which e-book format will eventually come to dominate the industry, so buying any device now is a gamble. (Ask the guy who bought an HD-DVD player.)
But the Internet has also reduced the importance of such network effects. Consider this unlikely but not impossible scenario: Let’s say the Kindle gets trounced by rival e-book devices over the next few years, and Amazon ultimately decides to quit making the reader. What would happen to all those suckers who bought dozens of Kindle books? In the old days, they’d have been screwed; their books would be useless. But that doesn’t have to happen anymore. Kindle books work on iPhones, iPod Touches, Windows PCs, and soon the iPad. If Amazon decided to stop making Kindles, it could easily license its format to other e-book companies, and then, magically, every Kindle book could work on other e-readers. Your media, especially content that lives online, is never truly stuck anymore; it can always be liberated to some newer frontier.
And that gets us back to the iPad. Like the Kindle, Apple’s tablet is a network-effect business. Your iPad will work best if many other customers adopt it, prompting a lot of developers to create apps for it—ensuring its long-term survival as a platform. That’s likely to happen—programmers have already created tons of apps for the iPhone (all of which work on the iPad), and many have been working on iPad-specific versions.
But let’s say there’s a hitch—imagine, for instance, if programmers recoil from Apple’s restrictive App Store policies and choose to abandon the iPad. How much would early adopters suffer? Not too much, because the iPad already has access to a wide range of applications and content that’s not going away: stuff on the Web. What’s more, the iPad can be updated, so Apple can quickly make changes to the device to satisfy any customer complaints. Let’s say a lot of people decide to boycott the iPad because it doesn’t play Flash. Steve Jobs can be stubborn, but he’s not stupid—if Flash becomes a sticking point, he’ll add Flash.
None of this guarantees you’ll love the iPad, or that it’ll be a success. But neither of those possibilities is such a disaster. If you pre-order the tablet and hate it, take it back. If you love it but no one else does, who cares? Sure, you might be able to get a cheaper one next year, and Apple might add a camera or a faster processor to the thing. But if none of that matters to you, don’t worry. You’ll get years of great service from your iPad—even if Apple decides to discontinue it by Christmas.