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‘Disruptive’ is bandied around in the digital world as much as ‘game-changer’ and therefore it’s a principle that is often watered down and made cliché.

It's also used in a completely wrong way, much like how I did in the original version of this article published last year. Think of this as a revised and updated apology for my previous mistakes.

Many innovative products and services have been described as disruptive recently: the Internet of Things, Uber, Oculus Rift, Google Glass and other wearable technologies. 

These are massive advancements in not just technology but also imagination and the creation of demand for something you never knew you needed.

Are these things truly ‘disruptive’ or is it just a phrase used for any emerging and somewhat outlandish technology?

Disruptive innovation

Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School and the term ‘disruptive innovation’ and its definition was developed by him in his book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’.

Christensen makes it very clear that ‘disruptive innovation’ is not a ‘breakthrough’ innovation. It’s not an innovation that makes an already existing product better. 

Instead ‘disruptive innovation’ means to: transform an expensive, complicated product used by a small minority, by making it more affordable and accessible, and therefore creating a brand new market.

Examples of disruptive innovation

  • Automobiles disrupted rail transport.
  • Email has disrupted the postal service. 
  • Mobile phones have disrupted traditional fixed line telephones. 
  • The pocket calculator has disrupted the desktop calculator. 
  • The television has disrupted cinema and theatre.
  • Synthesisers have disrupted the piano and organ.
  • Digital photography has disrupted chemical process photography.
  • MP3s disrupted CDs.

It’s a giant-killing place. 

As you can see from the above examples, disruptive innovation isn’t necessarily about making something better, it’s just about making it cheaper, simpler and therefore widening its potential market.

More recent examples:

Wikipedia has disrupted the market for encyclopedias. In fact, the Encyclopædia Britannica closed production in 2012, after 244 years.

Google AdWords caused disruption by providing affordable search marketing and display advertising solutions, when rival search engines were offering ads for at least $5,000. AdWords is now Google’s main source of revenue.

Netflix in the US (and LOVEFiLM in the UK) killed Blockbuster and any other high street DVD rental company with their DVD-by-post services. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Although as an extended epilogue to this, Netflix is now a streaming only service and LOVEFiLM has been purchased by Amazon and is being managed by its Prime service. Online movie streaming has disrupted DVD-by-post services.

There’s also Zenefits, 2014’s “hottest start-up”, which gives away cloud-based human resources software to small businesses for free and lets them purchase insurance through their platform directly, cutting out the insurance companies that charge commission.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 21 April, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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