dinosaurs+mice, HPUX+Linux, OOo+google office, aka the Innovator’s Dilemma

Almost every time I see authors of traditional desktop office suites talking about web-based office suites, it is patently obvious that they haven’t read The Innovator’s Dilemma. (It isn’t just Michael; he just happens to be the latest example.) If you’re interested in innovation at all, do yourself a favor and read the book. No matter what you do in ‘innovation’ (create, manage, market, whatever) you’ll never look at your product or your competitors the same way again.

If you’re a Linux developer, the nutshell version of Innovator’s Dilemma should be familiar- the incumbent saying ‘this upstart is too immature/is too niche/doesn’t have enough features/isn’t ‘enterprisey’ enough so they’ll never take over our market’. And then the incumbent wakes up one morning with all the very immature mice feasting on its dinosaur carcass, as those mice have evolved much more quickly and gained a nimbleness and power the dinosaur could not possibly have imagined. It isn’t just coincidence; there are good structural reasons why this happens repeatedly, and the book explains them well. (Wikipedia has a good list of mice and dinosaurs, many of which are discussed in more detail in the book.)

This isn’t to say there are any guarantees about web-based suites taking over the market; web-based office suites have merely most (not all) of the the signs of disruptive innovation. But the core signs are there. So if you’re in the space, and you haven’t read the book, go do it before you write anything else on the subject. Not only will you be more competent next time you write publicly about it, you might just get some ideas that will help stop the mice who are merrily nipping at your dinosaur feet.

[Hint: it isn’t just for office suites… if you’re writing a desktop app or desktop development platform of any sort, you should be reading Innovator’s Dilemma and figuring out exactly what you’re bringing to the table against web apps and the web app platform- how are you going to stop yourself from being disrupted by them? If you can’t answer that question, you might want to think twice before writing more desktop apps or another desktop platform; if you can answer that question and can act on the answer, then you’re better positioned than most of your competitors- congrats.]

14 thoughts on “dinosaurs+mice, HPUX+Linux, OOo+google office, aka the Innovator’s Dilemma”

  1. It’s good that google showed up and gave it a try, as this was the biggest red herring in the space. Perhaps we can move off this obsession of web browser plugins and get back to the hard work of building an open, extensible, linkable 3D engine.Luis Villa’s Blog / dinosaurs+mice, HPUX+Linux, OOo+google office, aka the Innovator’s DilemmaYes, please people, read “the Innovators Dilemma”. It goes a long way to educate yourself on when your market isn’t as sure a thing as you think it is. Chinese pirates crack Blu-ray DRM, sell pirated HD discs

  2. I agree. We need more time spent on AGPL’d web apps with reasonably good aggreements about protecting user data and their rights over it.

  3. The other things about the disruptive innovation is that by not having the same cost model / overheads as the incumbent they find new niches to which they’re ideally suited and end up taking over – the classic example in the book is that 8” drives didn’t take over from 14” in mainframes they found their niche in mini-computers, 5” didn’t displace 8” in minis they found their niche in PC’s, 2.5” in laptops, (and although not in the book, now we have SSD’s in netbooks)

    So with that in mind there are two avenues for thought: while web apps, in particular office apps, may not take over initially ‘the enterprise’ what is their niche? The casual consumer, the adhoc collaborators would seem to be obvious candidates but who knows for sure yet.

    The second line of thought is that if you writing FOSS client applications, or a FOSS client platform (which still has the traits of being a disruptive innovation not necessarily in features but in development / business model) is to think what could be our niche – a candidate could be mobile devices which have different economics than fat client PCs / laptops and much less standardisation of UI and tolerance of new / different UX. Of course I have significant interest in this area so take with salt.

  4. Luis: I’ll make a case for having Seeing What’s Next be someone’s initial introduction to Christensen’s ideas. It recapitulates the main ideas of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, and adds some interesting case studies and useful new material on how to recognize where disruptive innovation is likely to be successful (or not, as the case may be).

    Paul: You ask “while web apps, in particular office apps, may not take over initially ‘the enterprise’ what is their niche?” From my experience I think web apps are most useful when the final product is itself web-based: for example, the spreadsheet whose sole purpose is to generate a table or graphic for a blog post. Also, I think developers of FOSS client applications should most definitely focus on mobile devices instead of trying to chase the taillights of Microsoft Office et.al.

  5. Frank: interesting, thanks for the link. I still haven’t read Solution, so maybe I’ll pick it up.

    Paul: a proper analysis of the whole problem would have taken much longer than i had. I just wanted to vent because every time I see this issue discussed people make basic, fundamental errors that are painfully obvious to anyone who has read the book. A more full blown analysis would definitely be useful; I’m not sure it would lead to mobile but it would certainly suggest that there are specific economics and user experience features which must be present if anyone want to compete with the web.

  6. […] olpc, sugar]A very wise man said, not too long ago:”If you’re writing a desktop app or desktop development platform of any sort, you should be reading […]

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