Thank goodness for early adopters

Matt Ridley has an interesting article up on his site in which he extols the virtues of the cost cutters. His point is that while the inventor of something or other usually gets the credit, its the business people who drag down its price to affordable levels that really benefit people.

I suspect his argument is just a little too strong. Without the inventors, then there’d be nothing to drag down the price of. The claim that inventions are going to happen anyway, whereas the cost cutting may not, is not correct in my view. In some cases inventions are more or less inevitable, because they are logical thoughts from what has come before. But some times they are completely out of the blue.

Cost cutting, though, is pretty much inevitable in a capitalist system. That’s one of the great virtues of the system.

Another important participant is the early adopter. Their importance is particularly obvious when it comes to home entertainment equipment, but somehow no-one ever notices.

Consider, back in 1998 I reviewed a Pioneer plasma display. This was a 640 x 480 pixel unit in 4:3 aspect ratio. It weighed 32 kilograms and had five cooling fans to keep heat under control.

And it cost $17,000!

Consider, also, what early adopters did. They purchased these, and competing products, at their ridiculously high prices (while people of greater refinement sneered quietly, when they heard of such things, about their ‘materialism’). They took the chance on the inevitable bugs in a new technology. If they thought about it, they would know that the next generation would be much cheaper. Yet in purchasing now, rather than ‘sensibly’ waiting, they funded the development, and encouraged the production of the next generation of lower cost models.

Now, of course, you can buy a bigger, better plasma for just 5% of the nominal cost of that early Pioneer, using dollars that are less valuable. Thanks in large part to early adopters.

PS: For any readers who are interested, I’ve put my short newspaper version of the review over the fold. Obviously less technical than the 1,400 word main one. But I am pleased, glancing over it now, with the tack that I took. It was a rare instance of prescience on my part. It begins, ‘I have seen the future.’

A very flat future

(Published 15 September 1998, p.6 in ‘Techno’ in The Canberra Times)

I have seen the future. It bears the inauspicious title PDP-V401E. It will revolutionise your television viewing.

This may seem like hyperbole. But it’s true. For 50 years the basic technology of television sets hasn’t changed. They’ve always worked by throwing a beam of electrons across a vacuum in a glass tube. When they hit the end, they make some phosphors glow. The problem with this scheme is that the tubes tend to be as deep as they are tall, are subject to losing focus, and can be provided with a flat screen only with great technical difficulty.

Enter Pioneer PDP-V401E. This is a 100 cm video display. It uses a technology called “Plasma” which, in essence, lays a grid of fine wires across two sheets of glass, dividing it up into many little cells. An electric charge makes the gas trapped in each cell emit ultraviolet light which causes the phosphors to glow.

The first thing to notice is that the display is as flat as a sheet of glass can be. For this display, that is the natural order of things. It does not need technological gymnastics to make a cathode ray tube flat on the end. The second thing to notice is that every pixel of the image is razor sharp. There are no electron beams to wander. Everything is controlled right at the points where the image is displayed.

But the most exciting thing is that this enormous screen is less than 90mm deep. That’s right, I don’t mean 90cm, I mean under four inches. Suddenly you no longer need to deep cabinet just to hold the family telly. You can bolt this thing to the wall (if you use strong bolts — it weighs 32 kilograms). The picture is bright. If the afternoon sun shines on the screen, it is rendered no less visible than a conventional television.

The PDP-V401E is not perfect. For one thing, its sharpness of display, and the size of the screen, exposes every flaw in the media you’re using, particularly video tape. But you can adjust the screen to be a little fuzzier if you prefer. For another, the thing generates some heat, so it’s equipped with five small cooling fans. These produced the kind of noise you notice when it finally stops.

Finally, it costs somewhere around $17,000!

But wait a few years. Wait until Pioneer and other companies have recovered their development costs. Wait until they produce small ones that you can just hang on a picture hook. At last the family television will be a thing you can place to suit yourself.

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