A disruptive technology or disruptive innovation is one that, when introduced, either radically transforms markets, creates brand new markets or destroys existing markets for other technologies. As you can imagine, it is very difficult to predict the impact a disruptive technology will have on society or even if a technology IS disruptive when introduced. My basement is littered with various companies’ valiant efforts to create a new market (Sony’s Digital Audio Tape for example).

No one wants to be disrupted, and often when faced with the possibility of radical change or even extinction, companies and industries scramble to catch up – and often it’s not pretty. RIM for example, continues to play catch up in both the cell phone market and the tablet market, last week unveiling the 4G/LTE version of the Playbook years after its initial dismal launch to a largely uncaring market. Here is a great but unfortunate example of the disruptive being disrupted.

I thought it would be interesting to examine some of the biggest disruptions in history.

In 1440, the Johannes Gutenburg revolutionized the printing industry with the introduction of the printing press. Until that time, books were handwritten – so this invention put a lot of calligraphers out of work. In the 1800’s steamships quickly displaced the sailing ships. Once that happened, and all shipping vessels switched to steam, companies producing trans-Atlantic sailing ships went out of business; not one survived into the 20th century.

In 1927, Al Jolson spoke the first synchronized dialogue in “The Jazz Singer” and the “Talkies” displaced the silent movie virtually overnight.  When Henry Ford started mass production of the Model T and made cars affordable for everyone, the horse and carriage industry was in big trouble.  Thomas Edison destroyed the candle making industry and Alexander Graham Bell killed the telegraph with those first few words to his buddy Watson.

The last century has seen more disruptive technologies than ever and some have had a huge impact on our society. The two biggest, of course, was the invention of the personal computer and the creation of the Internet. When combined, these two technologies have touched virtually everyone around the globe and changed the way the world works and communicates. Another example of a disruptive technology is the LCD screen – I remember when a 19” monitor literally took up most of my desk.  Not one consumer electronics manufacturer offers a CRT-based television today. It seemed like overnight, TVs went from fat to flat.

The music and movie industries have been hard hit by the Internet revolution and they have been resistant to change, and still haven’t figured out how to survive in this new digital world. We have all seen what happens when you try to ignore disruptive technology with the recent bankruptcy of Kodak – once the biggest name in photography, decimated by the digital camera. Apple reinvigorated the tablet computer industry with the iPad and laptop sales plummeted.

The list goes on and on and new disruptive technologies are emerging every day. The good news for us entrepreneurs is that none of these disruptive technologies just magically appeared, but were actually just better versions of what came before them.

 

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