No such thing as a disruptive technology

According to PC Magazine’s John Dvorak there is no such thing as a disruptive technology. “The concept of disruptive technology goes to the top of my list as the biggest crock of the new millennium...There is no such thing as a disruptive technology.”

The problem I have here is not so much with the conclusion of the article, which I largely agree with, but the definition of the term Dvorak uses. It is based on Clayton Christensen’ concept introduced in his book The Innovator's Dilemma. Dvorak defining ‘disruptive technology’ as:

“as a low-performance, less expensive technology that enters a heated-up scene where the established technology is outpacing people's ability to adapt to it. The new technology gains a foothold, continues to improve, and then bumps the older, once-better technology into oblivion.”

Around the net, I’ve come across a number of varying definitions, some more ‘correct’ than others depending on whether you take Clayton Christensen’s original definition as your starting point.

Wikipedia’s definition is similar to Dvorak’s:

The term disruptive technology was coined by Clayton M. Christensen to describe a new, lower performance, but less expensive product. The disruptive technology starts by gaining a foothold in the low-end (and less demanding part) of the market, successively moving up-market through performance improvements, and finally displacing the incumbent's product.

By contrast, a sustaining technology provides improved performance and according to Christensen will almost always be incorporated into the incumbent's product.”

An example of where a key concept of ‘disruptive technology’ has actually been inverted is at the Nanotechnology Now:

“Any new technology that is significantly cheaper than current, and/or is much higher performing, and/or has greater functionality, and/or is more convenient to use.

Spot the difference? Notice that within this definition, ‘performance’ is higher, not lower. Even if this is an ‘and/or’ condition, this interpretation is fundamentally different to Christensen’s. In fact, this definition is closer to a ‘sustaining technology’.

Worse, in a Computerworld article, Christensen defines disruptive technologies as “simple, convenient-to-use innovations that initially are used by only unsophisticated customers at the low end of markets.”

Using this definition, the following should ruled out as ‘disruptive technologies’: WWW; RSS; Blogging; XML; Broadband; Nanotech; VoIP; WLAN, P2P. Absurd...these are ‘disruptive’, using the normal use of the word.

Not having read The Innovator’s Dilemma (and probably won’t), my understanding of what is a ‘disruptive technology’ is similar to a definition I found at Paul Wormeli’s blog:

“disruptive technologies...cover those technologies that bring change. In most instances, what makes a technology disruptive is that it brings radical change by introducing a new way of doing things generally at a much lower cost than before, and when the technologies go mainstream, the way we do business changes.”

This is what most people mean when they use the phrase ‘disruptive technology’.

It is useful to be able to describe a technology as disruptive. It is not useful to have an academic misuse a word to describe a concept that can be easily misinterpreted and therefore create confusion. Even the title of Dvorak’s article, ‘The Myth of Disruptive Technology’, cleverly leverages the misnomer.

I don’t like Christiansen’s definition, but I do like the term. It communicates the impression of fresh trajectory and major impact - not simply the natural progression of a current trend, or ‘business as usual’ - but a technology that will bring about significant change, move markets and create new opportunities: to disrupt.