The Elusive Early Majority

by Neale Martin published October 23, 2006 in Telephony Telephony

A few years ago, while working with a leading manufacturer of networking gear, I was surprised when an executive made the claim that voice over IP had crossed the chasm and was now mainstream. Periodically, high-technology manufacturers want to fast forward the product-adoption cycle in a rush to get to the large markets represented by the early majority segment. But this industry leader was clearly pushing his company's agenda far ahead of marketplace realities.

This conversation came back to me as I toured this year's glut of trade shows and conferences, which all reflect the mainstreaming of VoIP, converged networks and the future of broadband wireless. But does this mean we have crossed Geoffrey Moore's technology adoption chasm? The answer is much more important than a manufacturer trying to hype next-generation equipment.

New products and services typically follow a predictable adoption curve. Moore postulated that with products based on high technology, there is a caveat: The path is not a smooth growth curve. Instead, an ominous chasm separates the early adopter from the early majority. Many products based on new technologies appear to be on a high-growth trajectory but fail to reach sufficient velocity to cross this abyss. Early adopters are visionaries seeking competitive advantage, not a group that the early majority looks to for buying guidance.

The distinction is critical to marketing and sales efforts. The question of whether a traditional (non-visionary) company would purchase a product based on this new technology determines not only where to advertise and how to target sales but how to provision the entire supply chain. To understand this in terms of convergence, with VoIP as the lead product, we must look at the macro marketplace.

Adoption always occurs at the segment level. Each sector has its own innovators, early adopters, early majority and late majority customers. For Indian companies engaging in off-shoring, VoIP has been an integral part of the strategy for years and is definitely part of the mainstream. This does not provide evidence that converged applications are mainstream in the broader market.

Conversely, residential VoIP is still in the innovator or early majority phase. Though the same can be said for the small and medium-sized space, numerous manufacturers are rolling out VoIP gear specifically for this market.

There are two important implications to understanding that segments go through their own adoption cycles. One is the need for companies to translate their new technologies into value for specific user groups. To simply launch a new technology such as WiMAX in the hope that it will find an eager market is a foolish bet of investor capital.

The other implication is that companies must evaluate their portfolios based on the idea that product adoption can accelerate rapidly after the chasm has been crossed. We have known for years that convergence was inevitable, but most communications companies still garner the bulk of their revenues and profits from analog services.

To do this, realistically position individual products and services in the portfolio along the product-lifecycle curve. Total the revenues generated by products in each category: introduction, growth, maturity and decline. If more than 60% of a company's revenues come from products in maturity and decline, the organization is at significant risk.

We have known for years that convergence was inevitable, and the evolution of industry conferences provide overwhelming evidence that manufacturers and service providers are positioning for this future. But most market segments have yet to cross the chasm. To get to the early majority market of these other segments, companies must understand that these customers are not interested in technology because it is new, but because it is reliable.