The Innovators Dilemma

Martin Pool reminded me of The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.

This book examines why great companies miss the boat with new technology. He talks about disruptive technologies; those technologies that start out under performing established offerings. They're usually cheaper, smaller, simpler and have features that appeal to fringe customers (i.e. those customers who haven't already bought existing offerings).

These disruptive technologies often creep up on established offerings; as illustrated in the graph below.

Graph of disruptive technologies

The problem is that the disruptive technology doesn't become viable for all customers for some long period of time. Companies who listen to their customers end up developing their existing lines (to meet existing customer demand) until suddenly that customer demand is now met by the disruptive technology. At that point, the sustaining technology is out of businesses; nobody wants it. Christensen gives many examples, especially with disk manufacturers. Companies making 14 inch platters were catering to mainframe customers who needed storage in the 300Mb range, not the 30Mb range 8 inch platters of the time could offer. However, it wasn't long before the 8 inch platters were in that range, and by that stage it was too late for the 14 inch platter companies.

Disruptive technologies grow by opening up new markets. The book gives the example of hydraulics and digging equipment; initially hydraulic arms could not dig as much dirt as the steam and cable counterparts, however house builders, interesting in digging shallow, narrow ditches for the post-war housing boom, snapped up the new offerings. It sure beat digging ditches by hand. Eventually the disruptive technology of hydraulics caught up to cable based diggers, which were less reliable and more unsafe (imagine a cable snapping with tons of load on it), putting most of the cable based digger companies out of business.

But the cable based companies could not offer hydraulic diggers to their customers; for a long time they could not dig as much so those customers who need to excavate a lot of dirt would not buy them. It would have been a very bad managerial decision to move the company to hydraulic diggers and loose all your big customers. They followed what their customers wanted and went out of business for it.

The book goes on to talk about strategies for companies to manage this change. However, Linux in specific and open source software in general is clearly a disruptive technology. Where exactly Linux is on the line is an open question, I think somewhere after the red circle but before the green circle.

The evangelism prevalent in some areas of Linux and Open Source development has always struck a difficult chord with me. Concerted efforts to sell open source as something better because it is open source have never really made sense to me.

This graph illustrates to me why. Big gigantic changes can't be made by big gigantic companies. Switching to what I (we) can see as a disruptive technology is not in their interest, because it probably does not meet their customers needs. They essentially need to wait until it is too late; to when the disruptive technology has caught up to them sufficiently to provide an alternative to the status quo.

As a disruptive technology you grow by opening up new markets on your way to "world domination". You need to focus on your technology, and keep pushing up the development line to get closer and closer to that green circle. Marketing of course plays a part, but the performance of the technology has to be there. I strongly believe that sufficiently good technology starts to speak for itself -- the bottom line with software is that it does what you need it to do in a way that helps you do it. It is for this reason I think a Freshmeat announcement of version N+1 is infinitely better than a press release about Linux/Open Source blah blah blah.

I think it is important to keep this in mind. People digging the biggest holes couldn't move away from cable based excavators until hydraulics could move as much dirt as the old technology. With software, moving the dirt equates to features, support, ease of use, compatibility and a myriad of other challenges. I look forward to the day Linux is the biggest shovel of all!