What Does It Take To Achieve Mass Adoption?
Learnings from the rise of email technology
It’s easy to imagine that when the world changes, it happens in a single flash. One moment things seem one way, and the next they’re different. But in reality, that’s rarely the case.
Change is a slow process.
That’s especially true for the adoption of innovative new technology. Mass adoption is mostly a slow process, usually defined as being the point where enough people use something for its growth to become self-perpetuating.
We can learn a lot about the process of mass adoption by looking at one of the last century’s most important developments: email.
The history of email
Email technology, like many significant innovations, evolved over time. There is no precise date for its creation or its adoption. It incrementally evolved and took shape over decades.
The first example of a technology we might recognise as similar to email in spirit dated back to 1965 (before the internet).
At the time, MAILBOX was used on computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and it functioned much like a physical mailbox. Someone could log onto a computer and leave a message for another user, who would then be able to check it the next time they used the same device. Unlike today, computers were shared between many people and weren’t connected to each other. The obvious downside was that it relied on the recipient accessing the same computer and wasn’t ideal for time-sensitive messages. Not much better than leaving a post-it note on their desk.
MAILBOX was followed by ARPANET, used by the US Department of Defense (DoD) to connect all the computers in the department so everyone could communicate.
But how could you get messages to go to the right user? We needed to come up with the digital equivalent of a postcode. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson devised a solution we still use: the @ symbol, used to address messages to a particular user on another computer.
ARPANET unsurprisingly proved so useful for the DoD that people began to dream of a wild vision for the future.
Imagine a world where all computers were linked together, and you could send messages to any of them.
Today that might be our norm, but in the pre-internet days, it was a far-out concept. That’s what motivated the invention of internet networks in the 1980s, connecting computers across the world through email hosting sites.
For many people, email was their first experience using the internet — which is still often the case even today.
By the 1990s, internet use began to edge towards mass adoption as more people embraced this new communication method. User-friendly, free services like Hotmail and Yahoo simplified the process and helped make email mainstream. So while email started off among academics and the military, it became something everyone could use — and wanted to use.
Today, it’s expected that anyone with internet access will have an account, and email is the centre of our online lives. For the most part, it’s replaced many common uses of older communication methods, like sending letters or making phone calls. But that took decades and we still use mail, phone calls and even fax when it’s appropriate.
Mass adoption is a slow process and it’s never quite complete
Support for technology and systems takes time to develop. For email to become accessible, we needed the internet, widespread access to it, home computers, organising technologies, simple platforms like Hotmail and so on. It’s a common misconception that, just because a technology is hard to use in the first place, it will never be suitable for mass adoption. But, as email shows us, that process just takes time to happen — not just years, decades.
What does it take to achieve mass adoption?
It’s usually a combination of the following:
- A clear, recognisable use case that solves a common problem
- Easy, simple and inclusive access
- Cheap or free to access technology
- Widespread awareness, often through influential early adopters
- Few or low risks involved
It also takes time for people to change their habits and get used to doing things in a new way. You probably check your email first thing in the morning, maybe even before getting out of bed, without really noticing it. It’s a habitual part of your life that feels natural.
However, you’d probably be reluctant to change your habits around communication, in the same way changing your habits around money is difficult. Inertia is a powerful force. Persuading people to use a new technology can be one of the hardest steps.