Cynicism Is Relative
I had a lot of fun last week speaking at the SIIA’s Brown Bag series on a panel called “Beyond the eBook” with a few colleagues, new and old (the relationships, not the people). But there was an interesting element to it that I thought was funny, and would like to share.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, I quickly became labeled as the “curmudgeon” or “technology cynic” because of a number of factors, all of them self-inflicted. Again, it was all good natured, but my unwillingness to rush out and buy an iPad transformed me into the technology curmudgeon in the room. I absolutely I loved it.
But it made me think about a truism that applies to this as well as almost everything in life: Everything is relative.
Ironically, in my household I am known as the “gadget guy,” and I serve as “free tech support” for both friends and family alike. Particularly in the area of gadgets, I am often asked questions that begin with “Why did you buy …” or “What possible use does …” and the like. I think you get the idea. The dark side of that is potentially wasteful spending, but the upside is that friends and family get free tech support (a topic that I have some thoughts on, but I’ll save that for another post).
The funny thing is that I don’t consider myself a cutting-edge gadget guy, and my experience last week only served as further evidence. Again, everything—seemingly especially so around technology—is relative.
I have no intention of buying an iPad—at least the first incarnation without 3G—and perhaps not even in 2010. There, I said it. Better to just tear off the Band-Aid and get that out in the open. Now why do I feel like I have just confessed a sin?
I subscribe to the motto of “never buy Version 1.0 of anything,” and that’s a lesson learned the hard way—I’ve been burned more times than I care to remember. There are a couple of reasons for my stance:
1. Version 1.0 isn’t really ready—this is by far the biggest factor. Technology companies—heck, anybody these days—are under tremendous pressure to get products out the door. With the over-hyping of products and solutions as the main culprits. In the age of the Web, we are used to having things “good enough,” knowing that they will improve over time. With physical products and hardware, this can sometimes get you burned.
2. There’s always a bigger fish—this was one of my favorite lines from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” but I think it applies to many business cases. No matter how cool you think your device or latest technology is, Moore’s Law (the idea that technology power doubles roughly every two years) says that you only have to wait a little while for that shiny new thing to be relegated to the “Island of Misfit Gadgets” and the pages of history. So why invest now?
This argument can be twisted in lots of ways, because taken to its extreme, no one would ever buy anything. But the truth is that, at least in my experience, *when* to buy is as important as what to buy, and the more information you have, the better. I happen to think (based on keeping up with the tech news) that there will be a variety of competitors to the iPad later this year, and that it’s going to impact the price. That information is not unique to me or any great revelation, nor is it guaranteed; but it *is* enough to get me to hold off on buying.
3. Peer pressure only works if you feel it—I’ve never been especially motivated to have the “cool new device” and be the envy of my peers, although I acknowledge that this is a definite motivator for some people. I saw a guy with an iPad on the train last week, and he was using it in a way that almost forced people around him to take notice. Clearly this guy wanted people to ask him about his iPad, and of course someone did. He then struck up a couple of conversations with the people around him (myself included) about the features/functionality of the device. Turns out this guy waited in line for 5 hours to buy his iPad when the Apple Store opened. (If they re-animated John and George, and the Beatles did a reunion concert, I might wait in line 5 hours for tickets, but until then, not so much). I have never—never—gotten the psychology of waiting in line (even camping overnight) for a new product release. But that’s just me.
4. I’m from Missouri (i.e., Show Me) on this whole tablet thing—I love the idea of dedicated e-eaders (Kindle, Sony Reader, etc.) and the whole immersive reading aspect of it. The iPad—and the associated iBook store—promises to kick up this experience a notch with a beautiful backlit screen, and also does a ton more, fitting it somewhere between the dedicated reader and a laptop. I’m just not sure that is me yet. Are we using this device because we need to, or because we want to be cool, and Apple defines cool? That’s a question, but there is a hidden statement behind that (especially since I already said I am not buying one). And that statement is: “I am not cool.” Not exactly news, but I’m ok with that.
In all seriousness, in thinking about the iPad, the cost and not being able to answer the “when would I use it?” question outweighs the cool factor. But I acknowledge that that “cool factor” should not be underestimated. Was the world really begging for a better MP3 player when Apple created the iPod? How did that work out for them? There is something to be said for *making* a market instead of just serving a market, as Henry Ford was getting at when he said, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.”
So I will continue to face the good-natured barbs from colleagues and friends about not embracing the latest and greatest gadgets, while still being known as “gadget guy” at home. I know this cognitive dissonance doesn’t make much sense, but everything is relative.
Jabin White is Vice President of Content Management for ITHAKA, an organization committed to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. ITHAKA provides several services to the academic community, including JSTOR and Portico, which increase access to scholarly materials and ensure their preservation for future generations.
With a heavy background in XML theory and practice, White has spent most of his career evangelizing the benefits of markup languages and related technologies, including content management, workflow enhancements and authoring tools.
Prior to joining ITHAKA, White served as Director of Strategic Content at Wolters Kluwer Health's Professional & Education (P&E) Division, Vice President, STM Sales for Scope eKnowledge Center, and VP of Product Development at Silverchair, Inc., a leading developer of information solutions for health care publishers.
He also spent five years as Executive Director of Electronic Production at Elsevier, serving the Health Sciences Division. White started in health sciences publishing as an editorial assistant at Current Medicine and has held digital publishing positions at Mosby, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Unbound Medicine. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in history and has a Masters in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University.