Blogger: Richard Watson
The term "disruptive technology" is much-abused in analyst writing. Let's remind ourselves what it really means. Clayton Christensen and Joseph Bower coined the term "disruptive technology" in their 1995 Harvard Business Review paper . Christensen and Bower point out that products tend to improve incrementally to a point beyond which customers cannot adopt the product's new capabilities. At some point, the high-end capabilities of the product will exceed the needs of its customers. At this point, a disruptive technology may enter the market and offer a new and different value proposition. Disruptive technologies offer "a different package of attributes from the one mainstream customers historically value". This often means less leather trim and walnut dash inlays, but a raw performance that makes the impossible, possible. Christensen and Bower use the evolution of the hard-disk-drive from 14" to 8" to 5.25" then to 3.5" to illustrate points of disruption:
Each of these new architectures initially offered the market substantially less storage capacity than the typical user in the established market required… But the disruptive architectures created other important attributes – internal power supplies and smaller size (8"); still smaller size and low-cost stepper motors (5.25"); and ruggedness, lightweight, and low-power consumption (3.5"). From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, the availability of the three drives made possible the development of new markets for mini-computers, desktop PCs, and portable computers, respectively.
So, bored with reading endless, 'X of the decade' reviews in newspapers over the holidays, I decided to join in with a list of technologies that have disrupted application development over the last ten years. Here’s my list (in no particular order):
- Spring Framework
- Ruby on Rails
- Amazon Web Services
- JBoss Application Server
- Open Source Databases, such as MySQL
- Apache Ant
Each of these disruptors is detailed in a table embedded in these slides.
What's interesting in retrospect is the bias in my list towards open source innovations. I didn't set out with that in mind. My colleague Kirk Knoernschild posits that this is because:
Developers creating tools to "scratch their own itch" tend to hit the mark better than vendors trying to invent a problem that needs solving.
Which brings us back to another Christensen concept: the "innovators dilemma". Vendors tend to create products for their existing customers; disruptive innovation tends to create new markets outside an existing customer base, or a new demand for products with different attributes (often a lower price point). While some of these technologies were disruptive on price point (e.g. JBoss, MySQL), many are not – just better functionality (Spring, Ruby on Rails) or brand new (JUnit, Amazon Web Services).
The Jolt Awards are another reference worth returning to, for spotting trends in application development technologies. I would say, the Jolts award sustaining, rather than disruptive technologies: they tend to be more vendor-centric than the open source bias in my list. That Eclipse and Hibernate won the 'languages and development environment' and 'libraries, frameworks and components' awards respectively in 2004 and again in 2005, was unusual.
There are many other disruptors I wanted to include that do not fit with these technologies: disruptive architectures like REST or development practices, especially agile methods. These other disruptors will make a fine topic for another article.
 Bower, Joseph L. & Christensen, Clayton M. (1995). "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave" Harvard Business Review, January-February 1995.