Disruptive Technology is Disturbing


   By Jim Johnson   

The Byzantine Empire was a world power between 324 and 1453 AD and at times included North Africa, Italy, and Rome itself. During this time the Empire was ruled by nearly one hundred emperors. It also waged dozens of wars and hundreds of battles, which required, naturally, thousands of generals. During battle campaigns, the Empire's generals needed to coordinate their attacks—and this mainly depended on outriders, since of course there was no other way for battle leaders to communicate. How could they agree on whether to attack or retreat? And what if some of them disagreed or were actual traitors to the emperor? This dilemma became known as the Byzantine Generals’ Problem and—thousands of years later—led to a protocol in distributed computing known as the Byzantine Agreement Protocol (Byzantine General's Algorithm). In his book Connections,James Burke chronicles how one invention builds onto another—leading to even more inventions. Technology does not spring out of the ground; it is a process, and sometimes a long process. 

Almost 99% of current pitches to venture capitalists include the phrase “disruptive technology.” The common definition of this phrase is “technology that disrupts the marketplace and replaces the current offering.”  Uber, for instance, is often described as a disruptive technology. However, consider that Uber’s technology is basically a cell-phone app. When Uber started, there were already a million apps for mobile phones. This means that all of Uber’s technology was in place before Uber came along. What Uber actually disrupted was the long-standing idea of a taxi marketplace, and it did so through the clever use of an advanced—but common—technology. 

What, then, is the difference between “disruptive technology” and “technological advancement”? Consider another example. The iPhone had a major effect on the cell phone market (and is also often cited as disruptive technology). Prior to the iPhone, I had a Motorola Razr that fit very nicely in the change pocket of my Wrangler jeans. I also had an iPod and a PalmPilot. I used the iPod to listen to books and never used the PalmPilot. I now use my iPhone to make calls, listen to Audible, get my e-mail, and summon Uber.  Steve Jobs integrated commonly available parts coupled with advanced software development to create the iPhone. 

If ever there was a pure disruptive technology, it would be the Segway. In 2001, Steve Jobs called that invention “as big a deal as the PC.”  Venture capitalist John Doerractually suggested it could be“bigger than the Internet.” The Segway is truly a technological marvel. The Segway was going to revolutionize intercity travel. Taxis, buses, bikes, and parking lots would all be gone.  Subway rails would be paved and turned into Segway paths and the trains sent to the junk yard.  Segway plug-in stations would crop up all around the city. Obviously, none of this happened; these days you can buy 100 Segways for the cost of one Tesla Model 3.  Maybe eventually we will see the long arm of the market and lifestyle bring the Segway into mainstream use to reduce pollution in our cities. But meanwhile…..

CTOs, scientists, and executives are always looking for the newest innovations. Entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and marketing management are always looking to gain a competitive advantage through the use of advanced technology. And me—I believe there is no such thing as disruptive technology.  Advanced technologies are not original; they have been built on the backs of millions of scientists, engineers, and innovators for thousands of years.  What we are seeing is clever people using advanced technology to build a business by gaining a competitive advantage that results in substantial market disturbance.

By the way, the core technology in Bitcoin is the “Byzantine General's Algorithm”

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Subject Matter

Agile ProcessGeneral Interest

About the Author:


Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is chairman of The Standish Group. He has been professionally involved in the computer industry for over 40 years and has a long list of published books, papers, articles and speeches. He has a combination of technical, marketing, and research achievements focused on mission-critical applications and technology. He is best known for his research on project performance and early recognizing technology trends. Jim is a pioneer of modern research techniques and continues to advance in the research industry through case-based analytical technology.

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