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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Differential Adoption

Where there are two competing technologies in a given space, we may be able to learn something interesting from the differential patterns of adoption. (In studying a technology in relation to its adoption space, we get a better understanding of both.)

RSS and Atom represent two competing standards for internet syndication. James Snell recently posted a quick note of some of the technical differences: So what's the deal with Atom? He has now discovered some evidence of differential adoption between RSS and Atom. It turns out RSS and Atom really are different.

However, we need to interpret this evidence carefully. Technology often goes in clusters - one technology drags other technologies on its coattails - and it is not always obvious which technology is the determining factor in the user selection.

(In biological evolution, there is a phenomon known as genetic coupling, which links together apparently distinct features and prevents them from developing independently of one another. Thus natural selection doesn't prove the advantages of a single feature in isolation, merely the aggregate advantages of some group of features. Similar coupling often happens with interdependent technologies, and this complicates the study of technology adoption.)

In this particular example, the user preference for either Atom or RSS is correlated to a user preference for different news readers (e.g. Bloglines versus RSS readers).
  • Bloglines readers are more likely to subscribe to Atom.
  • Atom readers are more likely to use Bloglines.
There are many possible ways of explaining this correlation. Maybe this has something to do with the characteristics of the Bloglines user (of which I'm one). Or perhaps it has something to do with the design of the Bloglines subscription mechanism. Where a blog offers both an RSS feed and an Atom feed, Bloglines readers are given the choice. (For my part, I always choose the Atom feed.)

In his recent book Democratizing Innovation (free download here), Eric von Hippel discusses lead users and identifies three characteristics as follows:
  • ahead of the majority of users in their populations with respect to an important market trend,
  • expecting to gain relatively high benefits from a solution to the needs they have encountered there,
  • and a significant source of innovation - many of the novel products they develop for their own use will appeal to other users too and so might provide the basis for products manufacturers would wish to commercialize
James Snell refers to this book, and suggests that Atom users may be lead users in this sense. But the differences between Atom and RSS (as described by James) don't seem to warrant this suggestion. Is there any evidence that these Atom users are actually exploiting the technical differences between Atom and RSS, and/or generating significant quantities of user-centred innovation?

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