Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that a huge swath of innovation can be traced to elite consumers whom he calls lead users. These imaginative and technically adept consumers spot a need and invent a solution, often changing whole industries, from sports to software.
“Needs emerge, and users scrounge around and find something,” Mr. Von Hippel said, “or tools and technologies emerge, and people figure out how to use them.”
The evolution of short-text messaging on cellphones is an example of consumers putting technology to an unforeseen use.
So how are consumers shaping technology markets? In all sorts of ways, of course, but two markets that seem particularly intriguing are cellphones and the emerging field of social-network software.
Markets, it is said, are a conversation – producers, consumers and others have a voice. And consumers are using technology to change the conversation.
Signs of the shift abound. An example is the rise of Weblogs, or blogs, which are essentially online bulletin boards for discussion and polemics on any subject the blog owner deems worthwhile. Political blogs are the best known, but other blogs focus on industries and products. And influential blogs can shape market perceptions.