The Myth of the Myth of Disruptive Technology

If there were a John Dvorak drinking game, it might go like this: Everyone drinks each time the long-time PC Magazine columnist says Bill Gates, MS-DOS, or mentions an early PC technology; you quaff twice if he calls someone stupid; three times if he wilfully misreads another journalist; and you chug the whole thing if Dvorak argues that something is a myth or a wives’ tale.

Under those rules his current column would be a real inebriation-inducer. We have Dvorak in full flight, complaining loudly about Clayton Christensen and his “disruptive innovation” theory. Dvorak concludes as follows:

The concept of disruptive technology is not the only daft idea floating around to be lapped up obediently by the business community. There are others. But the way these dingbat bromides go unchallenged makes you wonder whether anyone can think independently anymore.

Now, I have no trouble with people picking on Clay. He’s rich, he can take it; and more importantly, Christensen does have some daft ideas now and then, so fair’s fair. But Christensen’s disruptive innovation idea isn’t nearly as dumb as Dvorak makes it sound in the column.

For example, Dvorak makes much of how Christensen misinterprets computing history. While Christsensen says DEC was done in by a disruptive technology — the personal computer — Dvorak disagrees, loudly:

The microcomputer was never a “less expensive” and “inferior” replacement for minicomputers. It was a more expensive and superior replacement for calculators and slide rules. It was never used “instead of” a minicomputer (or mainframe for that matter) but “in addition to.”

John’s wrong. The microcomputer was never a wholesale replacement for all aspects of the minicomputer, and that is precisely Christensen’s point. From the standpoint of minicomputer makers, and of their buyers, the PC was a toy, a stripped-down bizarro box that could do only a fraction of the things their precious minicomputers could do. That, of course, is why DEC was blindsided by PCs — it saw them as toys, and its customer saw them as the same thing.

For what it’s worth, Dvorak’s current column says more about his blind spots than Christensen’s. Like all aging (and increasingly ignored) acolytes of a particular ideology, he gets uppity when someone (Christensen) comes up with an internally coherent and frustratingly simple explanation for why his favored view of history is incorrect. There’s nothing like being disrupted yourself to prove that disruption happens.

[Update 8/2/04] Various people have pointed out I’m not the only one thinking Dvorak is adrift on this one (although I am the only one who turns disagreement into a drinking game). TechDirt makes the same point, as does Jeff Nolan of SAP Ventures. As the former points out, too many would-be critics of disruptive technologies confuse “disruptive” with “outsized”. Such critics should go read Christensen’s book and then argue with him — there’s plenty to argue about, but at least pick something he really said.


  1. Ed Campbell says:

    Most of this posting is an ad hominem attack on Dvorak. Acceptable as blog [I guess]. Decent rhetoric; but, nothing more than opinion about opinions, writing style, past, present and future — ending with a resounding crescendo of psychologizing. Vaguely up to the level of an Ivy League grad student with Rush someone-or-other as mentor.
    Having worked for a vendor providing services to DEC in their heyday — right over into the great slide downhill — I can testify to a number of additional reasons for that sleighride considered by neither writer. None validate “disruptive technology”. More like lousy business sense when it came to that burgeoning PC market and conceit about having “your own DOS”. History records a series of decisions made in a boardroom by people who only spoke to each other.