Business needs to embrace disruptive technology – like the iPad

When we look back at the landmark devices that changed the business technology landscape, Apple’s iPad will be large in the rear vision mirror.

Only last month, one of America’s biggest tech chain stores, Best Buy, told The Wall Street Journal that the iPad had already cannibalised sales of laptops by as much as 50 percent.

SpeechPrompter iPad App
SpeechPrompter iPad App (Click for full size)

Best Buy quickly toned down that comment but rumours abound that a lighter, smaller iPad is just around the corner. Meanwhile, announcements are coming thick and fast from other vendors, Blackberry with their PlayBook, Samsung with their Galaxy Tab, Toshiba with their Libretto W100, with many more undoubtedly soon to follow.

Even Telstra is launching its own mobile tablet. The new Telstra T-Touch Tab is due in November and will be powered by the Android operating system.

The iPad is a classic example of a disruptive technology, the term coined in 1997 by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen to describe technological game-breakers.

Disruptive technologies are those innovations that challenge the established order, typically emerging unannounced and creating unexpected change, often out of chaos.

It is likely that the rate of adoption of tablet devices, such as the iPad, will be unprecedented, and this will amplify the disruptive effect on associated technologies and markets.

Christensen talks about two types of technology:  sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technologies improve established products, while disruptive ones offer alternatives to the established and eventually become simpler, smaller, better-functioning or cheaper to produce.

The Ford Model T is a classic example of a disruptive technology. It wasn’t the first motor car – but it was the first that was mass-produced and therefore an affordable one.

Recently released data  (SEPTEMBER 19) from the Australian Bureau of Statistics pointed to a 21 percent increase in the use of mobile wireless devices, including tablets, USB modems, WiMAX, and 3G data cards in the period December 2009 to June 2010.

While the iPad was only released in Australia at the end of May and would have had minimal impact on those figures, they do point to increasing numbers of people accessing more data on the move.

There’s no better example of devices and content both working to provoke change than electronic readers like the iPad and the Kindle.

[Next: How has the iPad and Kindle changed business?]

Carolyn Reidy, the global CEO of Simon & Schuster, recently gave a talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about the effects of a digital economy on publishing. Reidy said that it would be young people who would invent new forms of the book, growing out of digital technologies. In part, she said:

“As successive generations mature, accustomed to multi-tasking and receiving information on screen 24/7, whether connected at home or wirelessly, I think new forms of writing and authorship will emerge that will reflect both how our technology has advanced, and how the human mind has changed in the way it works to process information, create and communicate.”

So according to one of the publishing industry’s most powerful leaders, her sector must prepare not only for the disappearance of traditional streams of revenue but the emergence of entirely new forms of content.

In the very near future, we won’t just think of a tablet or reader as a way of reading linear text. Richer media, such as video and interactive content is already pervasive, and developing technology like virtual reality will extend this and take us inside a story. We’ll experience it in 3D and immerse ourselves.

It’s about disruptive technologies constantly opening new spaces in the digital world and providing many opportunities, not just for content creation but for small businesses that talk directly to their customers through targeted marketing.

We need to capture the benefits that these disruptive technologies create. Rather than resist change, we should embrace it and create an environment which stimulates these technologies to come to the fore.

When new and disruptive technologies come to market, we don’t know what all their applications will be, and immersion in the technology is a key part of the trial and error process in their discovery.

Leaders in business, and society at large, have to be tolerant of chaos and build strategic capability to solve problems of the future, rather than concentrating on today.

Tim Webber is Head of Fixed and Mobility Solutions Marketing for Telstra Business.

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