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 lowerEven 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.

Comments (25)
  1. Seems to me that the above definitions of "disruptive technology" are missing the point. The key is to focus, not on the technology, but on the disruption. i.e. who is disrupted, and how.

    My definition: any technological invention that pressages a major change in the distribution of power within a given ecosystem.

    Given this definition, there can be technologies disruptive of different area – social, political, market, etc etc.

    There are also given scales within which disruptive technologies can act. Something like netflix is disruptive in the video rental industry, while something like the personal computer is disruptive in the whole computer industry, and something like cheap instantaneous teleportation would be globally, socially and politically disruptive.

    So, the key here is the disruption, which is a change in social order.

  2. Let me give an ambiguous example: netflix

    This is a business model that is disruptive to the traditional video rental business.

    Is it a disruptive technology? No, but its enabled by several technologies, the main one being the low price of pressing DVDs, coupled with the low shipping weight of the DVD itself.

    Does that make DVDs a disruptive technology? It depends on what disruptions you care to look at.

  3. rahul says:

    This sounds like one article I read where someone ‘disproved’ Moore’s Law by presenting an excel chart and suggesting that the ‘numbers do not match’!!

    spare the guy mann!

  4. Valdemar says:

    If you are unwilling to read Clayton Christensens excellent book, then how can you clain to have a valid or even informed opinion?

    Curious minds want to know.

  5. Alex Barnett says:


    I have never been to the moon, but I might still have an opinion about it.

    A moot point in any case, as I don’t believe I’m criticising the book, just making an observation about the various definitions of the term ‘disruptive technologies’.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Ronald Gruia, Senior Strategic Analyst with Frost & Sullivan: “Interesting Perspectives on Disruptive Technologies”

  7. Ronald Gruia says:

    Too much bandwidth is being used to dissect finer issues such as does the PC represent a souped up version of a calculator or slide rule or a cheaper version of a minicomputer? What’s relevant is again:

    1- how to find opportunities to disrupt the status quo of an industry and

    2- how to best position those opportunities to ensure that they do in fact become "disruptive"

    Any thoughts on those two issues?

  8. Alex Barnett says:


    You are right…looks like Netflix are disrupting the rental market:

    "Movie-rental giant Blockbuster said early Wednesday it’s launching an online DVD rental service, taking aim at competitor Netflix. Blockbuster’s subscription plan will be tiered, letting customers keep up to three movies a month for $19.99, five for $29.99 or eight for $39.99. The plan does away with late fees and Blockbuster will give coupons for free movie rentals in its stores. Customers also would be able to return a movie they rented online to a…"

    Via Always On Network:

  9. MSDNArchive says:

    track back from robert scoble:

    " My definition of a disruptive technology? (Thanks to Alex Barnett and John Dvorak who is talking about such)…"


  10. The FT takes a speculative look at the next 10 years of the internet’s development:

    "Somewhere in…

  11. Simon says:

    To Alex and many others who claim to understand the term ‘disruptive’… You don’t. There are some simple populist misconceptions that people often make about this term and I suspect many others. But you have made a classic misunderstanding. The ‘disruptive innovation’ idea is far more complex than your definition. Ultimately its about ‘strategy’, and how some new technologies can overcome the odds to prevail against the odds. i.e. Not all technologies that could disrupt, do disrupt… Why?

  12. Don Dodge, director of business development in Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team, has shared some interesting…

  13. Raza says:

    Although I haven’t gone through Prof Christensen’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, however, from definitions provided by the author and some other Web reference, I got a fair concept of the term "Disruptive Technology’. My prior understanding was (as per Christensen) that disruptive technology is a new technology which enters a market without much hype and in low key but in coming days it affects the existing technology to a great extent, sometimes completely demolishing the once-better technology.

    But when I read the article ‘Myths of Disruptive Technology’, then I came to know that most of the technologies which are termed as disruptive do not bear some basic principles of it. I think John Dvorak’s examples in this regard are sufficient. Also, in Wikipedia, a disruptive technology is termed as ‘radically different’ from the leading technology. If it is radically different, then how come in the long run, it can displace the leading technology? It should have basic similarity with that technology, though the upbringing or focus may be different.

    Finally, just putting forward some lines from my point of view:

    Though Christensen coined the term Disruptive Technology to bring a new concept in the field of innovation, but still there is some controversy over the perfect definition of it.

    More generally, Disruptive Technology can be defined as a technology which is new to the market and is meant for the long run existence, which eventually overturns it’s competitors completely or partially in the process.

  14. KC says:

    I tend to agree with the people above who claimed that the focus of the term "disruptive technology" is the disruption of society, business model etc, not the technology itself.

    But, if we go along with this sort of definition, don’t you guys think that the term is simply nothing new,  and it sort of explains everything.  

    You got to lay out what criteria under which a technology is disruptive, and brings a paradigm shift.

    I’ve gone through Christensen’s work.  He’s clearly stated that a "disruptive technology" is something technologically straightforward, simpler and cheaper, and it offers a new set of attributes that are only valued in the emerging market, but not in the the established market.

    In his focal example of the HDD industry, it means that the smaller-sized HDD displaces the larger ones because it offers smaller size, which is only valued in the new market (let’s say minicomputers), but since it also has a smaller capacity, which is something the established market (mainframe computers) can’t put up with.

    It isn’t disruptive yet.  While the emerging market grows, and the smaller-sized HDD also gets improved on capacity, it gradually displaces the established market as well because the smaller-sized HDD now has a capacity that can satisfy the needs of the established market as well.

    Of course, speaking about capacity.  While smaller-sized HDD’s capacity grows, larger ones grow as well.  But the point Christensen wanted to make is that because the larger-sized HDD makers (often great firms) are improving the capacity at a rate that is too fast that even the established markets can’t absorb.  That’s why the smaller-sized HDD can disrupt them.

  15. KC says:

    I think Christensen argues that the larger-sized HDD makers failed because they were too customer-sensitive.  Their customers told them that capacity was everything, that’s why the larger-sized HDD ended up with producing larger, and larger capacity HDD.  The larger-sized HDD makers missed out one important thing:  their products always improved at a faster rate than the needs of their customers.  It was this performance oversupply which gives disruptive technology an opportunity to displace them.  The lesson (dilemma) to learn is that established firms succeeded and failed both because they’re too customer-oriented.

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