August 4, 2004

Dvorak Disrupts ‘Disruptive’ Tech Label

Management Fads By: ams

I loved this piece. I fell into it from a link to Dvorak’s 10 best and worst laptops of all time in Good Morning Silicon Valley. It triggered a bit of melancholy refelection that very, very few of the folks in the field today even remember the 80s, much less the 70s — the installed base always rounds to zero in a growing market 🙁

Basically, it reminds us that the root of all productivity growth is in new ideas — the perspiration comes later, too, and it is 99% of the effort, but all the same, society needs big new ideas to grow.

The Myth of Disruptive Technology


The microcomputer was never a “less expensive” and “inferior” replacement for minicomputers. It was a more expensive and superior replacement for calculators and slide rules. It was never used “instead of” a minicomputer (or mainframe for that matter) but “in addition to.”

In the Harvard Business School alumni bulletin highlighting this nonsense, there is a list of supposedly disruptive technologies. Not one is disruptive. At the top of the list are electric cars supplanting gasoline vehicles. On what planet? Internet sales supplanting bookstores. Hmm, Barnes & Noble is packed with people. Restaurants are being affected by the disruptive technology of grocers’ takeout. Are you laughing yet? Motorcycles being affected by the disruptive technology of dirt bikes—does anyone see a pattern here? Is this an April Fools’ gag?

James Burke’s marvelous PBS TV series Connections offers a better explanation for disruption. When there is true disruption, it comes from inventions, regulatory and social change, complementary technologies, coincidence, and demand.

The closest Christensen comes to a real disruptive technology is digital photography. But it was invented in 1972 and has never been “cheaper” than film. The atom bomb is surely disruptive, but neither cheaper nor inferior. The car replaced the horse, but it costs more, and it became a success because of the invention of pavement and the pneumatic tire; asphalt was never cheaper than or inferior to dirt.

There is no such thing as a disruptive technology. There are inventions and new ideas, many of which fail while others succeed. That’s it. This concept only services venture capitalists who need a new term for the PowerPoint show to sucker investors.

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