Disruptive Innovation at Wired


So I was getting ready to link to this piece by Robert Capps in Wired about the rise of “good enough” technology. I was planning to point out that this was just another term for disruptive innovation. I was congratulating myself on this deep insight, until I got to page 2:

To a degree, the MP3 follows the classic pattern of a disruptive technology, as outlined by Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruptive technologies, Christensen explains, often enter at the bottom of the market, where they are ignored by established players. These technologies then grow in power and sophistication to the point where they eclipse the old systems.

That is certainly part of what happens with Good Enough tech: MP3s entered at the bottom of the market, were ignored, and then turned the music business upside down. But oddly, audio quality never really readjusted upward. Sure, software engineers have cooked up new encoding algorithms that produce fuller sound without drastically increasing file sizes. And with recent increases in bandwidth and the advent of giant hard drives, it’s now even possible to maintain, share, and carry vast libraries of uncompressed files. But better-sounding options have hardly gained any ground on the lo-fi MP3. The big advance—the one that had all the impact—was the move to easier-to-manage bits. Compared with that, improved sound quality just doesn’t move the needle.

So… disruptive innovation is everywhere, and I’m hardly the only person to have noticed it. The MP3 example is actually an interesting one about which I’ll probably have more to say in a future post.

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6 Responses to Disruptive Innovation at Wired

  1. Dave W. says:

    Golly, that’s purty durned good for PATENTED (booga! BOOGA!) piece of s/w tech. When would we have gotten mp3 tech absent the patent system? 5 years later? 10 years later?

  2. Dave, would you care to elaborate? You might know more about MP3 technology than me, but my impression is that the people who hold the key MP3-related patents are not necessarily the same people who developed the MP3 standard.

  3. Greg Satell says:

    Disruptive innovation is probably the most overused term in business these days. It’s a lot more tricky than just a clever idea.

    See here: http://www.digitaltonto.com/archives/258

    – Greg

  4. Dave W. says:

    I would like to elaborate, but it requires a long answer. I mean, I totally respect you and always have for inventing the Internet and all. There is certainly a place for open source technology, and not just with software — there is even a place for it with pharmaceuticals if you can believe it. But I belive there is a place for proprietary technology, too, I will try to tell that aspect of the story with two stories posted here at yr blog. One will be the story of my personal experience with mp3 technology (no I didn’t do the patents, my experience that I will relate here is totally quotidian). The other story will be the story of my LINUX experience. I am glad your blog is raising the important issues. However, we do need to get past that patent lawyers are rich and programmers are poor attitude. I am pretty sure I, as a patent atty, make less than the programmers I work for, and probably less than you, too. To foreshadow one of my themes: the real issue isn’t which technologies are capital intensive to conceive of. Conception is always cheap and always will be. The issue is more about what technologies are expensive to implement widely — for example, which technologies require lots of hardware makers to come on board for. These need to be nurtured with patent rights. Good background reading is Professor Kitch and his claimstaking paradigm, if you have not read him yet, then hopefully my stories, after I tell them, will make you want to. If you have, the hopefully my stories will open your mind to what d00dski had to say.

  5. Hi Dave,

    A couple of important corrections: First, I’m not the Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web. That’s a different guy who’s not related to me. Second, i don’t think I made any comments about “patent lawyers are rich and programmers are poor.” This strikes me as being beside the point.

  6. Sean Matthews says:

    The facts in this article are interesting. The analysis is D-. The ‘good enough’ meme that the author is trying to get into the air is two hundred years old in economic history – I imagine that David Landis has stuff to say about this (classic example – the English economy ate the French economy at the beginning of the industrial revolution, because the English were happy to go down market to where the big money and therefore growth was – while the French thought that producing down market was infra dig.

    And the ‘good enough’ meme fails catastrophically even inside the article, without going outside to economic history 101: glaring example – the author does not seem even to have noticed that his long list of advantages of the predator does not add up to ‘manned planes are so superior’ – no risk of human casualties, 20 hours in the air, always available, about 1/m th the size of an F16, 1/n th the price, etc. etc. etc.

    A good editor would have sent this back with a ‘nice try, come back when you have something intelligent and coherent to say’.

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