Two classes of disruptive technologies are generally observed. One displaces an incumbent technology in a phase transition, during which users adopt the new technology over a period of time. An early example of this was the transition from horse and buggy to the automobile. The latter revolutionized transportation and disrupted not only older transportation means but also several ancillary means. A more modern example of this is the transition from at-home movies from a VHS format to DVD, which saw a reversal in the ratio of DVD use from 9:1 to 1:9 in less than 5 years. The adoption of the DVD format, in conjunction with other events such as the rapid growth of broadband Internet technologies, has resulted in the distribution of digitized movies across the globe.

A second class of disruptive technologies creates a new market or capability where none had previously existed. The personal computer is an example of this class. Before the invention of the PC, computational resources were available only to large businesses, institutions, and governments. Most households did not have computers, and there was no perceived need for computation beyond that enabled by simple calculators. Today, personal computers are nearly as common a fixture in households as other appliances such as televisions, refrigerators, and telephones.

With history as a guide, several attributes seem to mark the birth of many disruptive technologies. First, there is a discontinuity when a key factor is plotted against time. The key factor could be performance, cost, reliability, adoption rate, or any of a number of characteristics that commonly describe a technology. The discontinuity may be related to a new application area and not to a change in the technology itself. Bringing an established technology into a new application can be disruptive within that application even when the technology itself is well worn.

Another attribute that should be considered when identifying disruptive technologies relates to their impact on other technologies. It is not sufficient for the application to be incidental; it needs to be impactful. Often overlooked in the history of the PC is the role played by the introduction of VisiCalc, the first important spreadsheet and data processing tool (see Figure 3-1).2 It was this application of the PC, rather than its computational applications, that spurred its growth and interest in it. Indeed, before the introduction of VisiCalc, many sages of the day called PC technology a passing fad.

A third phenomenon attending the birth of many disruptive technologies is the convergence of more than a single discipline when a crossover technology is born. For example, the World Wide Web saw the coming together of computer, communications, and browser technologies.

A final and perhaps most important attribute relates to corporate vision. As Gerard Tellis points out, the quality of leadership within a sector is a strong force in promoting the introduction of a disruptive technology (Tellis, 2006). Leadership that emphasizes innovation, forward thinking, and a willingness to cater to an emerging rather than a historical (and often dominant) market will speed the introduction of a disruption that is any case inevitable. However, the disruption can occur only if it profits rather than threatens the corporation. Leadership is exemplified by Steve Jobs and his ability to transform Apple from a computer company to a technology lifestyle company (see Figure 3-2).3

From these observations, the committee concluded that a forecaster, when assessing the disruptive influence of a technology, may ask whether the technology does any of the following:

  • Delivers a capability at a previously unavailable level, which may create disruptive forces;

  • Combines with other technologies to create synergies, which may also be disruptive;

  • Evolves from the nexus of seemingly unrelated technologies;

  • Disrupts a workforce, society, or the economy when combined with multiple existing technologies;

  • Generates products with new performance attributes that may not previously have been valued by existing end users;

  • Requires users to significantly change their behavior to take advantage of it;

  • Changes the usual product and technology paradigms to offer a competitive edge;

  • Exponentially improves the value received by the user;

2

Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VisiCalc#cite_note-tomcalc-0. Last accessed October 29, 2008.

3

A technology lifestyle company is a company that promotes the use of its technology to enhance day-to-day life.



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