5/03/2007

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DESIRE

Some unimaginative editing in the Herald on Sunday led my feature about the psychology of desire, the lust for new gadgets, to be cut in half. Here it is in full...

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WANT: GADGET PASSION

On January 30, the day Microsoft launched its new computer operating system Windows Vista, Amit Govind walked into Dick Smith Electronics and paid $650 for the most expensive version available.


There were only three copies of Vista Ultimate on the shelf. The retailer obviously wasn’t expecting a stampede of customers for it.

A 26 year-old software developer from Wellington, Govind is what is known to marketers of technology products as an “early adopter”.

He’s ahead of the curve - quick to buy and use new technology and prepared for it not to work exactly as promised.

“It was not an impulse buy,” says Govind of his Vista purchase.
“I put money aside, I did my homework. And I’ve no loyalty to any brand. I’m not a fan boy of Apple or Windows, Nokia or Sony Ericsson.”

Govind sits at a crucial point in the “technology adoption lifecycle”, a model created by academics in the 1950s that divides people into innovators, early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally – laggards.

“A lot of theory suggests that if you want to get a new product to take off you need to convince the innovative consumers to adopt it and then tell their friends about it,” says Simon Kemp, a lecturer in the psychology department at Canterbury University.

In the case of products like the hugely successful iPod music player, he adds, this obsession with early adopters has more than paid off.

“The marketing strategy has worked. They got the early adopters to use them. These things have gone past the innovative stage now and spread throughout society.”

Kemp says psychology research involving people who had invested early in the volatile technology sector during the dotcom boom, shows they had a propensity for taking risks.
“It turned out that people who bought shares in those companies were notably different in personality tests to the people who bought shares in ordinary companies,” he says.
“They generally liked to take risks.”

He believes the same goes for early adopters of technology who now seem to constitute an expanding group. As we become more comfortable with technology thanks to the Apple iPod and Google, the Motorola Razr and the Sony Playstation, we’ve in turn become quicker adopters of new technology – more comfortable with the risk of buying in early.

The tech sector is prospering as a result, having learnt to leap the metaphorical chasm outlined in Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm. Moore made a fortune advising Silicon Valley tech companies on how best to push products from early adopters to the mass market.

He felt there was a barrier separating those prepared to sit on the bleeding edge of new technology and the “pragmatists” who were later in embracing it and more sceptical of its merits. Clever marketing, product design and distribution had to be dreamt up to cross the chasm. The industry seems to have taken his advice to heart.

Society is using more technology than ever before and taking to it faster. It’s driven by the global shift to digital storage of media, the proliferation of web service and the available of better-quality, high-definition video. Disruptive delivery systems like internet TV and music and video downloads are changing how people access content.

“Consumers are allocating more of their disposable income on consumer electronics and will continue to do so,” Sean Wargo, an analyst for the American Consumer Electronics Association told reporters at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas show last month.
“They are adopting technologies faster than ever. New technologies we haven't even seen yet are sure to be adopted faster than their previous generations.”

According to the CEA, the average American household spent US$1500 on consumer technology last year and is expected to spend close to US$2000 this year. Kiwis spent $937 million on consumer electronics last year an increase of ten per cent on 2005.

The spend up on consumer electronics seems to have breathed new life into materialism. Mobile phones, laptops and other electronic gadgets are increasingly regarded as status symbols.
“Some people get pleasure in showing off their possessions to others,” says Professor Kemp.
“That is conspicuous consumption. If you can afford something like this, it’s a demonstration that you’re doing reasonably well.”

But some are making big financial sacrifices to be early adopters. Mt Eden retailer, Computerlounge, builds powerful computers to order, but finds student gamers and retirees tinkering around with digital video editing, make up a large portion of its clientele.
“Some of them are still at university,” says co-founder Paul Pattison.
“I wouldn’t put them in the high-end earning bracket.”

Most machines sold at Computerlounge cost $4000 - $6000. That’s a big outlay for someone on a part-time wage or student allowance.


“The thing forcing them to buy high-end is the games. The software pushes the hardware,” says Pattison.

In the run up to Christmas, a middle-aged, male customer slapped down $9500 for a custom-built computer. He bought it, says Pattison, so he had a machine powerful enough to do justice to the new flying game, Flight Simulator X.

But it’s about more than having the hardware grunt to handle the latest and greatest games. This class of PC owner also request glowing lights and water-coolers built into their computers. They buy super-fast processors and the best graphics cards available.

Pattison says it gives them “internet bragging rights” in the competitive online multiplayer gaming community, where people gather to play cult hits like Warcraft, 1942 and Counterstrike and obsess over hardware configurations.

After three and a half years in business, Pattison says business is booming for Computerlounge.
“We’re getting a lot more mainstream people. With the popularity of large screens, people want to put all their media on the computer.”

As a result, computers designed to sit in the lounge and act as media hubs for music, photos and recorded TV programmes have become popular and people are prepared to pay more for them.
People have gathered you can spend $900 on a computer, but you’ll throw it away after a year,” says Pattison.

“It’s a generational thing. Ten to 15 years ago computers weren’t around to the same extent. You spent money on cars.”

A look at the latest junk mail flyers from Harvey Norman or Noel Leeming, suggest the technology spend-up is also underway in more mainstream retailers.

Among the most coveted products, are the computers and music players developed by Apple.
James Wigg, a 37 year-old gardener and freelance Apple Mac operator is a self-confessed Apple fan, despite owning a PC himself. He does have a 30GB iPod and his big purchase this year will be an iMac with 20 inch screen.

Wigg isn’t an early adopter – he still accesses the internet over a dial-up connection.
But he loves Apple products for their “industrial design, consistency of appearance, attention to detail and the fact that [an Apple Mac] just looks good sitting on your desk.”

“It tends to become evident when you compare the scroll wheel on the iPod with the navigational buttons on virtually any other music player,” he adds.

Many others share his love of Apple design and outlay serious sums to buy Apple computers, which have traditionally sold at a premium to similarly equipped PCs.
However, as Tyler Durden claims in Fight Club, that wonderful satire on modern consumerism, do the things you own, end up owning you?

Technology publishing veteran Chris Keall says the “rats-on-a-treadmill” pressure to upgrade used to be confined to the PC market, but now pervades all consumer electronics.

“Replacement cycles just get faster and faster too. It's not just a matter of junking that Walkman CD player you've owned since 1985 in favour of an iPod. It's a matter of upgrading your iPod every six months. Or every three months if you want to stay really current,” says Keall who has witnessed a decade of technological change from the editor’s chair at PC World magazine.

Bombarded with virtually every new gadget coming to market, he’s the living embodiment of the early adopter and isn’t ashamed to admit having the latest gadgets on hand gives his ego a boost.

“For better or worse I did think I looked cool when I became the first person in Auckland to clip on one of the new cuff-link style iPod Shuffles, coupling it with some giant noise-cancelling headphones just-released by Phitek,” he says.

“Some of it is rooted in status anxiety, or wanting boasting rights for being the first. But part of it is it also relates to a perennial optimism about new technology.”


Keall’s years of reviewing new technology have shown him that most of it is “over-priced, fiendishly tricky to install, freezes, crashes” and has him “dribbling with rage.”

But his interest in technology and a belief that it makes our lives better is enough to keep him hooked.

The same can be said for 42 year-old Henderson beneficiary Tom Bollard. He’s not an early adopter, but the only thing that stops him from being one is a lack of money. Bollard has cerebral palsy but puts his keen knowledge of computers to good use in his volunteer work teaching children basic computer skills.

Last year he undertook a gruelling wheelchair marathon to raise money to buy computer equipment for his students.

For Christmas his parents bought him a Navman in-car navigation unit, a model that’s been on the market for about a year.

“My sense of direction is awful. If I get lost, I get flustered,” says Bollard.
“Now I’m as free as a bird. I could put it on the side of my wheelchair if I wanted to.”

For Bollard, the cache of owning new gadgets doesn’t drive his desire to own them.
“If I had the money I’d be out buying the latest gear because I’m interested in it. That’s why I spend so much time on the internet,” he admits.
“I’ve had my phone for two and a half years. It’s got a camera and email but no other bells or whistles. If mobiles were cheaper I’d buy a new one.”

If the iPod and Mac Book have become status symbols and the mobile phone being, for many, as much a part of fashion as the clothes they wear, Professor Kemp says there is another, less insidious, motive for adopting technology early.

“There’s also a genuine interest in the products. These people just want to see how it works and see what it looks like,” he says.
“They’re innovative in this way and have enough money to buy these things.”

But what when new technology doesn’t take off, even with the early adopters?
It happens regularly says PC World’s Keall.

“Not all geek chic crosses over into the mainstream. A Bluetooth earpiece does not so much confer status as make you look like a complete plonker on his way to a Star Trek fan club meeting.”

THE TECH ADOPTERS LIFESTYLE: RECOGNISE YOURSELF?

INNOVATORS
You have friends in high places or work in the tech industry, so are constantly using gadgets that won’t hit the market for six months. Your house is a mini version of Bill Gates’ – down to the flat panel touch screen on the fridge door and the robotic house maid. You think a lot about things like ergonomics, packaging and the “user-interface” of new products. Then you go into your shed and build a better one yourself.

EARLY ADOPTERS
You’ve already pre-ordered your Playstation 3 and actually know that “HSDPA” means being able to access the internet, on your laptop, at high speed, using the mobile phone network. The wife complains about the money you splurge on new gadgets but she’s thrilled that she can keep an eye on the house from work using the internet camera you bought her. Consumer electronics executives actually care about what you write about their products on your blog.


EARLY MAJORITY
The reviews in the geek magazines tell you these dual-core processors make for much better computing so you don’t feel so bad about trading in the 18 month old PC in the study. You thought you were pretty cool with your new music phone, till you saw three other people with them at the office. You’re constantly having to buy more power adapters to keep your growing collection of gadgets charged up.


LATE MAJORITY
You weren’t at the front of the queue for flat screen TVs but are now thanking your lucky stars as they’ve dropped $2000 in price since your home theatre-obsessed neighbour picked one up. You recently bought a laptop and a wi-fi router after the boss told you he’d let you telework from home if you set yourself up with the right gear. You’ve heard of iTunes.com but would still rather rip music from CDs.


LAGGARDS
You’re still using dial-up internet access and had to be lured off Telecom’s aging 025 network with the promise of a free phone because they wanted to shut it down. You keep wondering what this damn “iPod” thing is and why everyone keeps talking about what they saw on the Youtube.


IT’S ALL IN THE DESIGN


At a technology exhibition in Barcelona a beautiful Korean model stands amidst dozens of suited businessmen, clutching a handkerchief.

The model works for Korean electronics maker LG and the handkerchief is there for wiping fingerprints off the object of everyone’s attention – LG’s new mobile phone, the Shine.
The major selling point of the sleek device is that when in standby mode, its face forms a perfect mirror. It’s impressive to look at as long as it’s not smudged with businessmen’s fingerprints.
LG sold 78 million mobile phones last year, but it wants a larger slice of the European and US handset markets and is attempting to overhaul its image to better appeal to Western consumers and in the process, take on rivals Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Motorola.
The result is a new line of upmarket phones quite unlike anything LG has produced before.
First came the Chocolate, an angular, black mobile with touch sensitive keys. It was a hit last year in the US and went on sale here a couple of months ago. LG plans to have sold 10 million Chocolates by mid year.
The Shine was in response to research that showed mobile users like their phones wrapped in shiny metal, says Jae Bae, LG’s executive vice president. LG wants to sell five million Shines this year.
But its ultimate move to take its brand upmarket led it to strike a deal with Italian fashion house Prada. The Prada phone steals the Apple iPhone’s thunder by being the first mobile to go on sale that has no keyboard – everything is controlled using touch screen icons.
“It’s not another fashion company marrying for a few months with a consumer electronics company to brand a product,” Giacomo Ovidi, Prada’s business development manager, told the Herald on Sunday.
“We’re interested in making money, but the first objective was to do it our way.”
Prada’s tie-up with LG came only after the fashion house was given extensive input to the phone’s design. Other companies wanted the Prada name, but weren’t willing to collaborate on building it.
“At least five telephone companies have said to us, ‘you brand the phone, we make a good phone, we’ll share the revenue’. I always said no,” Ovidi points out.
As well as the over-all look of the phone, Ovidi says Prada’s Milan and Tuscany-based designers helped design the screen layout and Prada’s music composer supplied ring tones and musical effects.
Other phones in LG’s line-up pack in features, but the common theme to the more style-driven phones is minimalism, inside and out.
“We used a very large LCD screen. It represents the total look because [the LG Prada] had to have a great graphical user interface,” says Bae.
Teams of LG and Prada designers shuttled between Asia and Europe until the plans for the Prada phone were right. It will sell at a premium through Prada’s stores in Europe and Asia, not by mobile operators as is usually the case.
As such, the aim is not to make the LG Prada a multimillion selling, mass market phone but to build a name for good design.
“We’re not keen to compete directly with the iPhone,” says Bae of the highly anticipated music phone that Apple boss Steve Jobs wants to sell ten million of next year.
“We’ve different reasons for developing this phone.”
THE GOOD GRACE TO STAY HOME

Those who see value in flaunting their gadgets will be unimpressed with Microsoft’s Spartan vision of our high-tech future.

Most of the technology at Microsoft’s “home of the future”, situated at its headquarters near Seattle, is hidden behind the walls.
The last time I passed through the prototype house back in 2001, there was at least a computer in the lounge, providing digital media and internet TV services to the flat-screen TV dominating the room.
The screen has gotten even bigger, but the computer is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Jonathan Cluts, Microsoft’s director of strategic prototyping, explains how ten years from now, every last scrap of digital media ever produced could be available to download straight to your TV, via the internet.
Managing the mundane tasks of life are easier in the home of the future, thanks to a virtual maid called Grace. Simply say, “Grace, dim the lights,” and she does exactly that, present in spirit if not in body all over the house to heed your commands.
Grace also controls a projector positioned above the kitchen bench that displays recipes on the bench top.
PC World editor, Chris Keall, sees central control systems in the home taking off.
“The next step will be computers that control entertainment, security, heating, lighting and other systems around your house,” he says.
“Home automation used to be a rich person's game, but cheap and open technology standards are going to rapidly move it into middle class homes.”
In the hallway, an electronic noticeboard displays notes and reminders for the family, not on a screen, but emitted through the wall materials itself. Wireless technology is a common theme, from the radio frequency tags built into letters pinned to the notice board, which instantly identify where they’re from and reveal their contents visually, to the keyless entry to the house using a mobile phone.
In the bedroom, the walls are lined with light-emitting material that displays an image. You can change the wallpaper in the same way you switch background images on your computer screen. Change the colour of the walls to suit your mood or have video constantly playing around you. In the closet is a special mirror that displays your outfits and helps you choose what to wear.
Microsoft claims everything in the house of the future will be affordable within six years, which suggests our homes could soon be transformed from the inside out.

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