In January Apple announced the iPad. Immediately the response was overwhelming and completely bi-modal. One group of commentators believed the iPad was a revolutionary product which will usher in a new era of technology use. The other group complained that the iPad was neither fish nor fowl, they already owned both a phone and notebook computer and no one wanted to carry yet another technology device. As the debate grew more heated over the past month, it occurred to me that this debate could be viewed in terms of innovation. Is the iPad a sustaining or disruptive innovation?
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen describes some of the characteristics of a disruptive innovation:
- It initially costs more than the item it is initially seen as replacing, for example, the initial 5 inch hard disk drives cost more on a per megabyte basis than the 8 inch drives they were seen as replacing.
- It doesn’t perform as well as similar previous devices; doing the same task, the new innovation is not quite as good as the existing innovation.
- Customers and market research did not show a great desire for the new innovation or device, e.g. 8 inch disk drive customers had little desire for a smaller form factor device with a higher price.
- There was confusion about exactly what one would do with it, or how it fits into the existing market.
- The initial market was small.
I believe the iPad meets each of these criteria.
- It costs more. The iPad is compared with both the Amazon Kindle and netbook computers and is seen as too expensive in comparison.
- It does not perform as well. The iPad is too heavy to carry around compared to a smartphone, and is missing important features when compared with a netbook, e.g. a keyboard, camera, SD slot etc.
- No one is asking for it. There is limited market research to support the need for a tablet computer and previous tablet offerings have had limited success.
- Why does anyone need it? It is unclear what the “killer app” will be for the iPad which will drive wide adoption.
- Small initial market. Estimates vary, but even the most optimistic predict the iPad will initially be far smaller than either smartphones or netbooks.
However, Christensen also mentions that each disruptive technology also provides new capabilities or features which are attractive to a part of the market not well served by existing solutions. I think that the iPad will enable entirely new types of applications which will drive broad adoption of this device. Thinking about the iPad within the context of smartphones and laptops misses the essential point, and these new applications will define new usage modes for tablets, entirely different from what is possible on previous devices. Let me describe two examples of these new applications.
The Daily Prophet. Anyone who has read a Harry Potter book is familiar with the animated daily newspaper of the wizarding world. The iPad provides a platform for more involving newspapers, magazines, and books. Imagine science textbooks where you can actually watch or participate in a simulation of an experiment, or an anatomy text where instead of just looking at static pictures of organs, you can rotate them in 3D. Magazines and newspapers are more compelling with new media content, or even the ability to interact with other readers in real time with social media extensions. Reading is something most people do sitting in chairs, on couches or in bed. A smartphone’s screen is too small, and trying to read from a notebook in bed is difficult at best. The iPad has a natural form factor for reading, and its touch screen provides a natural way of interacting with these new types of media.
The TV Companion. How many times during the recent winter Olympics were you watching an event and wanted to know more about the competitors, or the event itself. What are the rules of curling? What’s the difference between a triple axel and a triple flip? The TV companion application synchronizes information on your iPad with the TV program you are watching. Watch a football game and get detailed statistics on each player and the ability to instantly replay any play at any time. During a movie, you suddenly want to know what other movies a movie star appeared in it just a touch away with the TV companion.
I think the important lesson from all of the hype surrounding the iPad is not to look at how poorly a new innovation performs the tasks of existing products, but what new types of tasks it enables. I know that I for one can’t wait to get my new iPad.