After hearing about Clayton Christensen’s bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma and seeing it referenced time and time again, I recently decided to pick up a copy for myself. Christensen, a professor at HBS, begins by discussing the concepts of sustaining technologies versus disruptive technologies. Sustaining technologies are those that “improve the performance of established products, along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued.” But while “user-centered innovation is perfect to drive incremental innovation,” it hardly generates breakthroughs, says Roberto Verganti. Disruptive technologies, on the other hand, are innovations that “result in worse product performance, at least in the near-term,” innovations that are not necessarily centered on what users say they want or need at the time but ultimately change an industry. Digital photography versus traditional film photography is a simple example. Or a car versus a faster horse, as described by the famous Henry Ford quote.
Furthermore, because sustaining technologies lead companies to “overshoot the market,” or give their customers “more than they need or ultimately are willing to pay for,” Christensen concludes: “[This] means that disruptive technologies that may underperform today, relative to what users in the market demand, may be fully performance-competitive in that same market tomorrow.”
Look at where digital photography is today, relative to its predecessor! And netbooks, popularized over the past year couple of years, surely fall into this category as well, in terms of “underperformance” in a market where computer manufacturers often provide much more computer than the average user may need.
In the same vein, is it not feasible to presume that the iPad could be in the same camp? Instead of viewing it as an upgrade for Amazon’s Kindle DX and e-readers more generally, perhaps a more accurate perspective is to view this new tablet device as a new (though currently underperforming) replacement for the current paradigm of notebook computing, as Jobs suggested. Sure, there are many flaws that people point out, and who knows if the iPad will be as dominant in the tablet space as the iPhone has been in the mobile space; but it does not seem too farfetched to think that tablet devices may soon be “fully performance-competitive” in the computing market.