Different Kinds of Innovation: Disruptive vs. Sustaining

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There’s this idea floating around these days that disruption in mobile is different because it comes from the high end and flows down to the middle and low end.

While it’s true that innovation in mobile is driven from the top end of the market, I don’t think it necessarily conflicts with the existing literature on technical disruption.

In my mind, this is how mobile fits into a tech disruption storyline:

  • A decade ago, we had big and relatively expensive computers.
  • In, 2007, the iPhone came along, which is like a toy compared to the laptops in terms of computing power, software capabilities, battery life, and price.
  • As the iPhone user base grew, the CPU got faster, the software and app ecosystem got better, and battery life improved.
  • Today, smartphones are arguably the dominant personal computing platform in the world.

If you focus strictly on smartphones, the top of the market indeed drives innovation (CPU speed, screen technology, etc.) but this is no different than when PCs became dominant and the top of the PC market drove innovation (Intel CPUs, GPU tech, DVD-Rs, PCIe, etc.)

The point of all this is that we shouldn’t conflate disruptive innovation with sustaining innovation. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the difference:

In contrast to disruptive innovation, a sustaining innovation does not create new markets or value networks but rather only evolves existing ones with better value, allowing the firms within to compete against each other’s sustaining improvements. Sustaining innovations may be either “discontinuous” (i.e. “transformational” or “revolutionary”) or “continuous” (i.e. “evolutionary”).

The key point is that disruptive innovations cause changes to markets:

Sustaining innovations are typically innovations in technology, whereas disruptive innovations cause changes to markets.

A very popular HBS case on this topic is Honda Motorcycles and their introduction of the small Super Cub motorcycle into the US market:

The Super Cub became a smash hit by opening up the motorbike experience to young buyers who had no interest in the black leather jacket and gang persona, but who just wanted inexpensive, convenient, individual transportation for short trips around town.

The success of the Super Cubs eventually translated into success with larger bikes, and Honda went from no presence at all in the U.S. market in 1959 to 63% of the market. In the process the company took a hatchet to the import market, dropping the share of British bikes from 49% in 1959 (when Honda started in the U.S.) to 9% by 1973.

Different Kinds of Innovation: Disruptive vs. Sustaining

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