Tablet computers are a “disruptive” innovation

If you’ve been to a RAIN Summit in 2012 (Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Berlin), you may have seen my “State of the Industry Address,” in which I discussed the theories of author/consultant Clayton Christensen (“The Innovator’s Dilemma”) and argued that Internet radio is a “disruptive innovation.”

(By the way, the term “disruptive innovation” is thrown around pretty freely nowadays, but, as Christensen uses it, it has a very specific meaning: It’s a type of innovation that starts out worse than existing products in its category, and thus is experimented with but subsequently ignored by most market leaders in its category, but then gets better until it satisfies the needs of most consumers.)

Having looked at the new Microsoft Surface tablet last night (very disappointing, by the way; I can now hardly wait to receive my iPad mini), I am reminded that tablet computers are an excellent example of a disruptive innovation.

Remember the release of the first iPad, in April 2010? It was a device we were very excited about, as we wrote in RAIN at the time, but compared to a laptop computer, it didn’t make the grade at all: It was underpowered, it ran hardly any business-related applications, it was slow to type on, and so forth. If you took a business trip in 2010 or 2011, you may have brought your iPad to use for web browsing and for reading e-books, and maybe to quickly scan your e-mail, but you brought your laptop computer along for real work.

But now all that’s changing! I have not brought a laptop computer with me on business trips all year: I like Keynote more than PowerPoint for presentations, I like Numbers almost as well as Excel for spreadsheet work, I have an auxiliary keyboard I can use when I need to do a lot of typing, and so forth. The tablet computer — the iPad, anyway — has leapfrogged past the laptop computer, at least for my needs. And it’s sleeker, lighter, and less expensive! That’s why 120 million tablet computers will be sold this year globally, and why by 2016 tablet sales will exceed desktop PC sales.

That’s the key thing to remember about disruptive innovations: They get better. McDonald’s was a disruptive innovation compared to the family restaurants of the 1960s (tiny menu, no indoor seating), but it got better. And Internet radio is a disruptive innovation compared to AM/FM and satellite radio (no personalities, no news & information, no song segues, limited flow control), and it will get better. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to.

Kurt Hanson