When are technologies really disruptive?

A few days ago I read an article about “disruptive technologies” in the (glossy) customer magazine of a large system integrator. The article mentioned technologies such as Big Data, Cloud Computing, or Mobile Computing. But are these technologies really disruptive?

The definition of “disruptive innovation” in Wikipedia is as follows:

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in the new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.
Amongst the most prominent examples of disruptiveness are the replacement of sailing ships by steamboats in transportation or of horse-drawn carriages by automobiles. Sailing ships play virtually no role at all in transportation anymore, at least not in the western hemisphere and across long distances. The same is true for horse-drawn carriages.

When looking at the technologies mentioned at the beginning, Cloud Computing is the most disruptive one from my perspective. Cloud Computing has massive impact on licensing models, even for on-premise IT technology. However, is “Cloud Computing” really disruptive? Or are just some parts of Cloud Computing such as SaaS vs. on-premise software disruptive – and maybe even some areas therein such as Office applications?

And where is the disruptiveness in Big Data? I do not see technologies being replaced by Big Data. Big Data allows for new types of solutions, but it is not disruptive at all.

When looking at Mobile Computing, one might argue that the recent drops in sales of PCs is a clear indicator of disruptiveness. And yes, there is some likeliness that the classical PC market will shrink further. However, Mobile Computing appears to be too unspecific as the disruptive innovation. There are tablets, smartphones, phablets, etc. that are challenging the PC market. But do we really know how the future will look? I just recently switched back from the Apple iPad to more productive devices, i.e. a tablet PC (ultrabook), and, in addition, Microsoft Surface RT that at least comes with Office apps and is able to display a Word document or Powerpoint in correct formatting. And I have a classical PC under my desk, with three 27” displays attached – mail to the left, Word in the middle, browser and Skype to the right. The different trends within Mobile Computing are disruptive for traditional PC technology. But what will be the result? We just do not know yet.

Overall, not defining everything as disruptive might be helpful. Many things that appear to be disruptive during the hype turn out to be not that disruptive. The reality of most organizations will be hybrid environments for the foreseeable future – and not pure Cloud Computing. There will remain a significant need for on-premise IT, for desktop PCs, and for classical databases and BI (Business Intelligence). It is important to look at new opportunities, but doing it with some realistic distance helps – especially in IT.



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