A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.
Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology. In his 1997 best-selling book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen separates new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience and may not yet have a proven practical application. (Such was the case with Alexander Graham Bell’s “electrical speech machine,” which we now call the telephone.)
Here are a few examples of disruptive technologies:
- The personal computer (PC) displaced the typewriter and forever changed the way we work and communicate.
- The Windows operating system’s combination of affordability and a user-friendly interface was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities.
- Email transformed the way we communicating, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries.
- Cell phones made it possible for people to call us anywhere and disrupted the telecom industry.
- The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and made it possible for people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops.
- Smartphones largely replaced cell phones and PDAs and, because of the available apps, also disrupted: pocket cameras, MP3 players, calculators and GPS devices, among many other possibilities. For some mobile users, smartphones often replace laptops. Others prefer a tablet.
- Cloud computing has been a hugely disruptive technology in the business world, displacing many resources that would conventionally have been located in-house or provided as a traditionally hosted service.
- Social networking has had a major impact on the way we communicate and — especially for personal use — has disrupted telephone, email, instant messaging and event planning.