Version 1.0 disease: the downsides of being an early adopter

By Anthony Fordham

One of the great things about being alive in the digital age is that every year there’s an amazing new piece of technology for us to play with. Flat panel TVs, digital set-top boxes, PVRs, portable digital music players, Blu-ray, the list goes on.

But there’s a downside to being incredibly excited about all this cool tech. It’s variously called Version 1.0-itis or Version 1.0 disease. Sometimes the symptoms are extreme, sometimes they’re more subtle, but in its simplest form, Version 1.0 disease manifests itself in a cool new product that’s really expensive, but doesn’t work nearly as well as the second or third generation of the same product.

The most extreme example is the plasma TV. Today you can go into any major department store and buy a 100 cm or bigger plasma TV for less than $4,000. Strike a deal with the salesperson and you could spend as little as $2,500. But 5 years ago, a 100 cm plasma TV would have cost you the price of a medium-sized car: as much as $30,000. Prices quickly dropped, but even so you were looking at $15,000 for a big, flat TV.

Adding insult to considerable injury, those TVs had inferior colour reproduction and especially contrast ratio to today’s displays, which cost less than a tenth of those original prices.

This kind of thing is true of almost any new technology. The digital set-top box, for instance. If you were an early adopter of digital TV, you would have spent close to $1,000 yet had to make do with a device that had limited connectivity, no HD capability, and probably often crashed or locked up.

In fact, the first set-top box I ever bought was so primitive, you had to solder your own cable out of parts from a electronics store if you wanted to upgrade the firmware.

Even Blu-ray players suffer from Version 1.0 disease. Players that output at 60Hz have to interpolate the 24 frames-per-second refresh rate of a BD, resulting in jerky pans. The next crop of BD players will be able to output at the correct frequency to ensure a perfectly smooth movie experience, but anyone who paid $1,500 to 3,000 for a first-gen player six months ago probably won’t be looking to upgrade.

While most new technologies settle down after a couple of iterations – think the well-established DVD player (a five-year-old example of which will work great with a new HDTV, though I sure would like HDMI on mine) – there are a couple of dishonourable exceptions.

The very worst of these is the iPod. This is a product that no matter when you buy it, a better one that costs less and does more will already be on Apple’s drawing board and probably nearing release. The first iPod I bought cost $1,000 and had a 20GB capacity. My current 40GB iPod has a colour screen and shows photos, but it doesn’t do movies like the new ones do. It cost the same as the current 80GB model, and it’s both thicker and heavier.

A friend of mine scrimped and saved and realised she wanted the iPod Mini’s slim footprint and negligible weight over the full-sized iPod’s colour screen and massive capacity… and six weeks after she bought a Mini the iPod Nano was released which has a colour screen. And the current iPod Nanos have four times the capacity of the first generation, at the same price.