Disruptive technology describes a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen separates 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.
When it comes to software, most businesses adapt better to the incremental changes of sustainable technology. They understand that change happens—software upgrades and patches occur fairly frequently and, in most cases, work goes on with no training and little disruption. However, major software changes can disrupt work, resulting in lost productivity until users are trained on and adopt the new technology.
Two examples of disruptive technology come from Apple and Microsoft. Apple announced its new iPhone last week, sporting a new dock connector. Those who wish to use their old iPhone and iPad chargers and cables need an expensive adapter. Microsoft radically changed its user interface in Windows 8. The Start button is gone. Some PC users I know are hardly adjusted to the big change in interface from Windows XP to Windows Vista and Windows 7.
I understand that disruptive technology—like microwave ovens and cell phones—can be both revolutionary and good. But must it be so disruptive?