Has secure email crossed the chasm?

Chasm  

The recent large deployment of secure email at Wells Fargo that Voltage recently announced is just one of many large deployments of Voltage's SecureMail in the past year or so. This might be enough to make you wonder exactly where secure email is on the technology adoption life cycle. Has it crossed the Chasm that was popularized by Geoffrey Moore and entered the Early Majority phase yet? Or is it still stuck in the Innovators phase?

To understand this, it might be helpful to describe exactly what the technology adoption life cycle is. It turns out to predate Moore's book Crossing the Chasm by over 30 years, and its first version actually modeled the adoption of a fairly different area: it was actually first used to describe how farmers adopt new agricultural technologies. The first discussion of the technology adoption life cycle was the 1957 report The Diffusion Process, by George Beal and Joe Bohlen that was published as a supplement to Iowa's Regional Extension Publication No. 1, How Farm People Accept New Ideas. This model was then described in the 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, where Rogers generalized the process to more that adoption of agricultural technology by farmers.

Beal and Bohlen modeled the adoption of new technologies by farmers as a process with five stages: Awareness, Interest, Evaluation, Trial and Adoption. In the awareness phase, people know about a new technology, but lack details about it. In the interest stage, people want more information about a new technology. In the evaluation stage, people think about a new technology and whether or not it will benefit them. In the trial stage, people start small-scale experimental use. In the adoption stage people have large-scale, continued use of a new technology. What's interesting in Beal and Bohlen's discussion of these five stages is how the most common way for people to learn about new technologies change at each step in this process. The most common ways to learn about a new technology in each phase are shown below.

Awareness

Interest

Evaluation

Trial

Adoption

1. Mass media

1. Mass media

1. Neighbors and friends

1. Neighbors and friends

1. Neighbors and friends

2. Government agencies

2. Government agencies

2. Government agencies

2. Government agencies

2. Government agencies

3. Neighbors and friends

3. Neighbors and friends

3. Mass media

3. Mass media

3. Mass media

4. Salesmen

4. Salesmen

4. Salesmen

4. Salesmen

4. Salesmen

We can summarize this by saying that when people move past just interest in a technology and start to evaluate it, then the source of their information changes from the media to people that they know. At that point, it seems reasonable to assume that the marketing efforts of technology companies should change. I don't know if sales and marketing people at technology companies use this model, but I wouldn't be surprised if they do. Curiously, salesmen come in dead last in every phase. Maybe they're never perceived as being a good source of information because they can probably be relied on to give information that's biased towards their products.

When it comes to individuals, Beal and Bohlen divided them into categories that are determined by how soon they adopt new technologies. This is where they divided people into the categories of Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Majority and Nonadopters. This is the model that Moore popularized in Crossing the Chasm, changing Majority to Late Majority and Nonadopters to Laggards when he did. Where is secure email on the technology adoption curve? Has it made it past Moore's Chasm?

Technologies reach Moore's Chasm in the Early Adopters phase. This means that if a technology is in the Early Majority phase then it's definitely past the Chasm. If it's still in the Early Adopters phase, then it might or might not have. People who are early adopters tend to take risks, but only to achieve very focused goals. They'll even work with start-ups to do this. People in the Early Majority are pragmatic. They don’t like the risks associated with new technologies but are willing to look at technologies when they've been tested by others.

Based on my experience at Voltage in the past five years, it seems to me that secure email entered the Early Majority phase in the past year or two. Before then, it was definitely only used by Early Adopters. Back then, Voltage's customers were ones that felt willing to take the risk associated with a small company and a new technology because the technology solved certain problems cheaper and easier than alternatives. More recent customers, however, seem to see secure email as an established and proven technology. They're now willing to deploy it widely, and Voltage now has several customers with over 100,000 users of its SecureMail products.

If Voltage's experience is representative of the entire secure email market, then secure email has crossed Moore's Chasm and is on its way to becoming used by a majority of businesses. That means that we'll probably see even more adoption of secure email in the future, and large deployments like the one at Wells Fargo should get more and more common. They might even become so routine that they're not even interesting any more.

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