Early Shifters

A recent piece of Forrester research suggests that technology consumption in the United States is now a mainstream phenomenon—as the New York Times put it, we are a nation of gadget geeks. While I would argue with the NYT's headline suggesting the mainstream are "early adopters" (not really possible, is it?), the study's findings confirm something that has been taking shape for over a decade: consumer technology, particularly networked communication and entertainment device, have become a central utility in the average American home, like power and water.The average number of CE devices in each home continues to grow, as does the reliance on these devices and the content, data and physical and social connections they bring into our homes.

Maybe we need to redefine the term early adopter to focus on how this lead group differs from the mainstream. It's no longer about adoption, but almost the opposite: disposal. The lead group of consumers in the US are now disposing of so-called "traditional" modes of communication and media consumption—landline telephony and broadcast TV. They have become "early shifters" making the leap from the old infrastructure to the next infrastructure, and shaping it as they go. Around 25% of US households now do not have a landline—according to The Economist, landline penetration is declining in the US by about 700,000 lines per month. Between 2004 and 2008, US cable TV penetration fell from 62% to 57%, according to Pricewaterhousecoopers. Newspapers? Decline in physical newspaper consumption is happening all around us.

I saw this firsthand about four years ago during field research interviews around the US looking at media and communication behavior among younger, less affluent consumers. A surprising number of homes we visited for interviews featured no TV or several seldom used or "retired" TVs around the house. They may have had a large screen TV or display, but more than likely they were connected to a PC or DVD player. Some interviewees told us they had bailed out on "regular" TV in favor of watching their favorite shows on the Web, buying from iTunes or getting their fix from Netflix. They checked the news online when they got up, looked to see who was online, and sorted their queue of online movie rentals. They were the early pioneers of the media cloud.

Interestingly, one area of slow growth in the Forrester study was wireless networks in the home—the nervous system of a connected media household. This is one of the barriers standing between the early shifters and the mainstream. The early shifters have made the jump or didn't need to—they are often single or otherwise a digital island unto themselves, connected to others but not harming anyone else's consumption habits. With families, this differs. The whole infrastructure has to be connected, and has to be easily created and managed. Consumer electronics companies haven't yet succeeded with that one.

We are still some ways away from the next big leap, with shifters becoming the mainstream—maybe five to seven years. The cloud needs to be more robust, a generation of consumer devices need to be substituted, and infrastructure providers must undergo a major change, but its out there. Where will the early shifters have moved onto then? Driving borderless media consumption, time and placeshifting and their primary behavior? Maybe we will call the next group "early movers".