by Bob Lewis

Tablets won’t be disruptive ’til the future gets here

May 03, 20115 mins
IT Leadership

"Disruptive technology" used to mean something important. Now it means "good." That's too bad..

“Disruptive technology” used to mean something important. Now it means “good.” That’s too bad. 2nd of three parts.

ManagementSpeak: This is a disruptive technology.

Translation: I have no idea what this is good for.

Most new words start out precisely describing specific concepts. But then (in business at least), repetition on the part of people who don’t know any better and are too busy or lazy to look it up eventually drains out all meaning beyond “good.” Or “bad.”

Take, for example, “disruptive technology,” which doesn’t mean “a technology that disrupts a marketplace.”

Clayton Christensen coined the term in his brilliant The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), so basic good manners say he gets to define it. It’s supposed to describe technologies that, when first introduced, provide little or no value for current uses.

Christensen’s original case study looked at disk drives, starting with 8? drive technology, which when introduced was far too limited to support the mainframe computers that constituted the main market for storage devices.

It was, however, perfect for the emerging minicomputer marketplace. Which did not make it disruptive.

Over time, 8? drive capacity and performance improved, faster than the needs of the mainframe marketplace increased. Once the lines crossed … once 8? technology was capable enough to support mainframe computers … it became disruptive, rapidly taking over as the dominant form of mainframe storage.

Minicomputers themselves followed this trajectory, becoming powerful enough to disrupt the mainframe marketplace after first succeeding elsewhere. So did personal computers and the open systems associated with them (not open source; that’s a different story).

All of which means we in the trade press should never describe any new technology as “disruptive.” The best we can do is predict that a new technology has the potential to become disruptive.

Take, for example, tablets.

The original Windows tablets — standard laptop computers with touch-screen extensions — were designed to be non-disruptive. But they violated KJR‘s Second Law of Successful New Product Introductions (see “Predicting Winning Products,” KJR, 2/8/1998), namely, affordability: A genuinely new product has to be priced low enough that doing nothing isn’t more appealing.

The iPad, in contrast, has terrific potential to be disruptive in the true sense of the term.

Its first qualification is that in its current state of development it’s of limited use for business computing. That’s as it should be for disruptive technologies, which are expected to incubate in entirely different marketplaces.

That Apple didn’t design the iPad for serious business use is clear. Speaking of clear, judging from the comments I received on last week’s column I wasn’t, at least regarding how I reached that conclusion. And so …

First and most basic: With only semi-compatible office suites and a browser that might or might not support even those enterprise applications that have been webified, all the talk of it being a laptop replacement includes this qualifier: “For people whose use is mostly limited to email and browsing the web.”

Then there’s note-taking, the canary in the business-use coal mine. While the ROI for replacing pens and pads of paper with tablets is asymptotically close to zero, that doesn’t matter. Once people start walking into meetings with tablets, taking notes on paper becomes stupid. Having created a tablet, why wouldn’t you make it better than pen and paper for taking notes in meetings?

Keyboarding notes isn’t acceptable. As I said last week, it creates a perception of rudeness, the keyboarders focused on their machines instead of the discussion … and that perception matters.

And, even if you are taking notes and not handling email because you’re bored … I’m an excellent typist, and even so when I’m typing my attention is on the keyboard and screen. When I’m writing, it’s on the conversation.

Next: Electronic ink isn’t good enough. The point of meeting notes is to help everyone who reads them understand what happened in the meeting. Raw, handwritten scribblings are a third-rate, lazy, disrespectful alternative.

So technology that turns electronic ink into editable text is essential. And, it has to do this, not in real time (this creates an incredible distraction from the act of writing), but after the meeting and note-taking are over, as a separate batch operation.

Exactly one iPad app — PhatPad — comes remotely close.

As also mentioned last week, writing means you need a decent stylus. Quite a few people told me there are plenty to choose from.

No, there aren’t. 127 years after Lewis Waterman patented the fountain pen we know what a pen should feel like in the hand and how it should put ink on paper. The best styluses available for the iPad are cylinders just over 4? long and a quarter inch in diameter that replicate the experience of using a bad Bic knock-off.

Surely a company as cool as Apple could have done better had it wanted to.


Don’t worry, we’re not done! Stay tuned until next week’s exciting conclusion: Why you care (or should).


Bob Lewis is author of Outsourcing Debunked and eight other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.