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Fashion technology competition could be heating up as COVID redefines what it means to “cross the chasm”.

If you work in technology or any technology-adjacent sector, you will have encountered the concept of crossing the chasm. Coined by Geoffrey A Moore to describe the way that technologies mature in the eyes of the open market, the chasm is a figurative gulf between initial take-up amongst innovators and broad adoption – one that some technologies vault over, while others fall in.

The chasm has endured in the minds of technology analysts, implementers, and marketers for thirty years because as a yardstick for measuring the cycle of technology adoption, it’s largely held true. Broadly speaking, the rise (and sometimes fall) of a wide range of new technologies can all be mapped to the cycle Moore described in the early 90s. Disruptive new technologies have tended to progress through the same stages: appealing to innovators and early adopters at first and then making – or failing to make – the transition to what Moore called the “early majority,” “late majority,” and “laggards”.

As the segment names suggest, the innovators and early adopters are those organisations that either pioneer new technologies and technology-aided approaches themselves , or that take a risk on implementing new technologies whose potential has not yet been proven. The early majority are the businesses that follow those in the vanguard – seeing that the companies who went first are realising results, and feeling secure enough that the technology can make the leap to the level of scale, reliability, and functionality they need. The late majority and laggards are those who adopt technologies only when they have already become the de facto standard.

As you might expect, the positioning of the chasm (between early adopters and early majority) coincides with two key maturity stages: commercial viability and the tipping point of customer confidence. To be reductive: technology vendors need to be ready to turn a road-tested idea into a going concern, and their customers need to trust that their requirements are going to be catered for without too many omissions.

But while Moore’s model has stood the test of time under typical conditions, the last year has been anything but typical. And the speed at which those two stages need to be reached has increased dramatically as the pandemic brought digital transformation objectives forward from being years away to being a near-term priority.

Where a given technology would once have had the luxury of time to cross the chasm or otherwise, COVID has made digitisation mandatory – compressing the timeline from innovation to majority adoption, and accelerating the need for de facto standards to emerge in many different areas at once, from 3D simulation to supply chain visibility.

We can see this across the fashion retail industry today. Brands and retailers are finding themselves, almost universally, needing to design and sell-in digitally, to control their production processes digitally, and to engage a digital-native consumer. And because each of these is a business-critical process, none of them is an area where any commercial business wants to take a risk on unproven technology. Instead, fashion businesses are now on the hunt for robust, reliable, proven, de facto standards in different areas all at once

This is having the pronounced effect of stress-testing technology vendors, who are finding themselves having to either scale their sales and implementation processes exponentially, or needing to rapidly demonstrate the viability of their solutions and build commercial models around them.

So the question becomes: has the chasm ceased to exist, with the pressures of the pandemic eliminating the distinction between early adopter and early majority, or is the leap from disruption to mass adoption still intact, but now happening almost instantaneously?

This week Moore himself weighed in, responding to an op-ed published on TechCrunch which suggested that the chasm model was outdated because of similar forces to the ones we are seeing in fashion today. Moore has the following to say:

“Pragmatic customers are being forced to adopt because they are under duress. It is not that they buy into the vision of software eating the world. It is because their very own lunches are being eaten. The pandemic created a flotilla of chasm-crossings because it unleashed a very real set of existential threats.”

While Moore obviously has a vested interest in his model remaining relevant, The Interline is inclined to agree that COVID has not fundamentally changed what it means to bring a new technology to market, and to have it achieve the milestone of broad adoption. But we do believe the pandemic has removed the brakes from the march of technology to the extent that two of Moore’s stages may now be redundant.

It is clear at this point in the pandemic that extrinsic factors have changed what it means to be an early adopter of any new technology. While brands and retailers can be notoriously risk-averse in their strategies, in today’s world most organisations have had their definitions of risk reshaped, which means that the lines between early adopters and early majority are beginning to blur.

More obviously, though, the global crisis may have removed the luxury of being part of the late majority and the laggards. While the world is in an interregnum at the moment, a time between the age of active COVID and post-pandemic rebound, that grace period will come to an end, and brands, retailers, and suppliers that have taken a “wait and see” approach to new technology adoption could easily fall too far behind for their positions to be salvaged.

And for technology vendors, similar forces are at work. A shrinking gap between what, in contemporary terms, we might call the MVP of a new solution or service and its full commercial realisation will mean greater competition.

Because as fashion re-architects itself post-pandemic, the industry is going to need its technology to have crossed the chasm faster than ever before.

Please note: Interline Insiders will be moving to a new distribution platform after this week’s analysis is distributed, and for data governance reasons we will not be porting our audience. So if you receive these articles via email and wish to continue to receive them in your inbox every Friday, please re-join the Interline Insiders list.