TECHNOLOGY: Disruptive Technology

By Van Horn, Royal | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2002 | Go to article overview

TECHNOLOGY: Disruptive Technology


Van Horn, Royal, Phi Delta Kappan


I FIRST read the phrase "disruptive technologies" in David Bank's excellent book, Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft. Bank is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and has covered Microsoft since 1996. The federal government's antitrust suit against Microsoft gave the news media an unprecedented insider's view of Microsoft because copies of all e-mails, meeting transcripts, and other documents became public court records. I believe Bank picked up the notion of disruptive technologies, along with the phrase, from Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma. According to Bank,

"a disruptive technology starts as an untested product with an unknown business model or one that offers lower profit margins. Most significant, few customers even seem to want the new thing. Any rational manager would stick with the old approach and brush aside the product as best suited for marginal, niche markets. At the same time, constant improvements in the traditional technology make it all the more valuable and seemingly invincible -- giving rise to the breathless accounts of a company at the peak of its power. By the time the disruptive technology makes the jump to the mainstream and undercuts the incumbent with a "good enough" product at a markedly lower price, it's usually too late for the incumbent to recover."1

Two examples of disruptive technologies that almost blindsided Microsoft are Netscape's browser and AOL. By about 1997, both Netscape and AOL were capturing massive numbers of users who were staring at desktop interfaces other than Microsoft's. If Microsoft had not been able to muscle AOL into switching to its Internet Explorer browser, Netscape and AOL would clearly have won the "browser wars." I highly recommend Breaking Windows. You can decide for yourself if it is appropriately titled.

Picking up on the "disruptive technology" theme, the cover article of the January 7 issue of InfoWorld deals with disruptive technologies and includes two subheads: "Innovations emerging beneath the radar pack the potential to shake up the tried-and-true" and "Turn not a blind eye to disruptive innovations when aiming for competitive advantage." The following examples of disruptive technologies are listed: Web services, Microsoft's .Net and C#, peer-to-peer collaboration, serial ATA and Internet SCSI, benevolent worms, instant messaging, 802.11 wireless networks, and 2G handhelds.

In the remainder of this column I'll discuss these and what I consider to be other disruptive technologies that have the potential to alter forever the way we interact with computers and one another. Some of the disruptive technologies in the InfoWorld article -- such as Web services and Microsoft's .Net and C# technologies -- will affect mostly educational information technology professionals, so I will concentrate on technologies that are likely to affect Kappan readers and their students.

According to InfoWorld, "Today's handheld devices might not seem like a disruptive technology, but the Palm, iPAQ, and Jornada are merely hints of what is just around the corner. Early prototypes of 2G (second- generation) handhelds -- the first real post-PC devices -- combine handheld technologies with [other technologies]." The latter include always-on wireless connectivity, handwriting recognition, printing, and scanning capabilities.

A good example of a 2G handheld is the Nokia 9210, described as "a normal cell phone on one side. But flip the hinged case open on the long edge, and you'll find a workable keyboard, a bright color display, and full wireless browser connectivity." The Nokia is already available in Europe and should be available in the U.S. about the time you read this column.

It is also noteworthy that a highly compact operating system (OS) known as Symbian is already competing with such handheld operating systems as Palm and Pocket PC and is the OS used by the European version of the Nokia 9210. …

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