Disruptive innovations often initially result in worse performance compared with established products and services in mainstream markets. But disruptive innovations have other benefits. They are often cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use. After taking root in a simple, undemanding application, disruptive innovations inexorably get better until they change the game, relegating previously dominant firms to the sidelines in often stunning fashion.
–Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovators Dilemma
Since Monday’s press announcement of Adobe’s pending acquisition of Virtual Ubiquity we’ve seen a storm of coverage by analysts, bloggers, and the press. Most of it has been extremely positive and encouraging. And it’s resulted in our servers being bombarded by what used to be called “The Slashdot Effect”. Only in this case it’s the total blogosphere/press effect.
One theme that’s been misunderstood in all this is our intention with regard to the established companies already in this space – namely Google and Microsoft. We recently had an interview with a perceptive reporter who wanted to write about Buzzword’s innovations and its new take on collaborative word processing, but told us that his editor insisted on playing up the horse race angle instead.
Too often the real story – whether we’re talking about politics, sports, or technology – gets derailed by the easier approach of just trying to call the race. Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? What do the poll numbers say? Can the incumbent be unseated? Who wins, who loses? It’s all too simple and leaves out the real story. This doesn’t just boil down to simple market numbers.
Which brings me back to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and the quotation at the top of this piece. Christensen’s book spends a lot of time looking at disk storage, which he calls “the fruit fly” of technology, i.e. it goes through so many generations in so short a time that it’s a researcher’s goldmine. But for our purposes, it’s easier to look at his case study of steam shovels v. hydraulic excavators.
When I was a kid, one of my reading books was Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel and when my parents took us to watch an excavation site, we’d see big, lumbering steam shovels taking up huge buckets of earth. Around the same time, small startup companies introduced the first hydraulic back hoes. These were small excavators that bolted onto the back of a tractor and could pick up only 10% of the larger machines – maybe 200 pounds of soil – and with much shorter reach. Clearly, in the eyes of those who manufactured steam-driven excavators, these puny diggers were no threat to the huge machines they were selling.
But this was mid-century, and middle of the baby-boom and the corresponding housing boom. Contractors were putting up houses as fast as possible and one thing you need to for a new house is trench out to the street for the sewer and water lines. Contractors who had been digging these trenches by hand could purchase an inexpensive backhoe, and use to dig a 1-foot wide trench to the street in an hour. So this disruptive hydraulic technology found a foothold in the excavation market where the steam-driven technology would never have been applied.
Fast forward to 2007. Seen any steam shovels lately?
And to draw the analogy to Buzzword’s situation – we’re digging ditches. We’ve got a bucket that lifts about 200 lbs at this point. We’re no immediate threat to the big guys, and we’re not going head-to-head. Nevertheless, there are those who need a word processor that “cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use“.
And we’ll be picking up 400 lbs. soon.