In years past, technology trade shows like CeBIT or its cousin in the US, CES, have been a place for the introduction of new devices. Whether it was Nokia introducing its comeback phone or Sony pushing 3D displays, computing technology and consumer electronics companies have used these shows to introduce the next big thing.
But what happens when the next big thing isn’t actually a thing but is, instead, the arrival of platforms that enable a more effective marketplace? That’s the shift that’s occurring in the world, thanks to digital disruption. Under digital disruption, companies innovate by using cheap (sometimes free) digital tools and exploiting digital platforms to change products as low-tech as the toothbrush or waterless hand soap. They also use those digital tools to alter the way they make and deliver their products and services, including things as analog as fingernail polish, something I heard about today and will blog more on in coming weeks. As a result, every company is now digital, no matter how physical their processes and outputs.
Digital disruption means that the technology companies that provide these digital tools and platforms have more opportunity than ever. Their devices and systems will be necessary in the lives of every consumer as well as every enterprise. Witness the amazing growth of Amazon Web Services as it enables businesses across the gamut with its cheap access to storage and delivery tools.
Once upon a time, you could trust that your business was insulated from disruptive innovation because only people already in your industry had the skills and the tools to try to change your industry. Thus, McDonald's competed with Burger King, Crest competed with Colgate, and Dell competed with HP. When innovation did arise, it came from companies that had similar economics and were evaluated by Wall Street using the same criteria. That meant that competition, although fierce, stayed within fairly defined boundaries and real surprises were few.
Digital disruption will change that -- or already has, depending on your industry. Under digital disruption, any company of any size can make a play for your business. That's how the Zeo sleep monitor, a $100 device that can monitor your sleep nearly as effectively as a $3,000 sleep lab visit can, potentially disrupts research hospitals, the makers of sleep meds like Ambien and Lunesta, and eventually the insurance companies that have an interested in promoting your health. That's how Amazon is now a major competitor for TV show pilots, using its vastly different economics to justify buying shows that would normally have a narrow set of bidders among broadcast and cable networks. That's how startup software companies are building apps to insert themselves into consumers' lives in ways that bigger companies should have done first by offering menstrual cycle tracking, DIY home improvement cost estimating, and weight loss monitoring.
If you’ve been following my posts, you already know that I love sports. But, if this happens to be your first time reading my blog, I’ll admit it right now . . . I’m a sports fanatic. In fact, I’d say I’m just slightly to the side of being obsessed. Seriously obsessed.
Second only to the Super Bowl for me is March Madness, the greatest time of year for NCAA college basketball. What makes it so great is the passion and enthusiasm that takes over every one of the 64 teams that make it into the tournament. And, of course, the Cinderella stories that seem to emerge, year after year.
Today, Barnes & Noble revealed the details behind the company's prior warnings that things in the holiday quarter didn't go well. Specific weak spots are appearing everywhere for the company, in its retail business, in its college store business, and in its Nook device business. Even the growth in sales of media for Nook devices, at nearly 7% over the same quarter in the prior year, was not growth enough to inspire confidence. Especially given that future sales of electronic content depends on robust sales of the hardware itself.
The company's dilemma will one day be a classic case study of the effect of unrelenting digital disruption, both how a traditional company can innovate under digital pressure as well as how hard it is to steer such a traditional ship in a digital direction. At this point, no single recommendation, no matter how digitally disruptive, will fix the company's problems. But once the company gets through the widely discussed option of splitting the company into two units -- the retail arm (with website) that company chairman Riggio wants to buy and the Nook unit (with college business) that Microsoft and academic publisher Pearson are already invested in -- there will be a chance on both sides to practice a fundamental tenet of digital disruption: openness.
Yesterday The New York Times picked up the hopeful news from the global music business that the revenue free-fall from $38 billion a year more than a decade ago appears to have stopped at $16.5 billion, leaving the industry at less than half its pre-digital size. This bottoming out of the revenues will come as some relief to industry executives who have wished and prayed for this day because, until it actually arrived, nobody knew for sure what type of revenues to expect in the future. That can make running a business pretty tough.
The music industry is everybody's favorite example of digital disruption done wrong -- including mine, since I covered music for Forrester several times. I have some classic stories I could tell to illustrate the point about executives who believed that suing customers was the path to profitability and so on, but I'll spare you those. However, as the author of a book called Digital Disruption, I actually owe it to the music industry for teaching me a few key principles of how to manage digital disruption:
At first impression it may feel a bit wrong to publish a book called Digital Disruption in a form as old-school as a hardcover book. In fact, as I’ve traveled around talking about the book, several people have half-jokingly suggested it was hypocritical to do so. I have taken the ribbing with a smile, but when people have the time and interest, I explain to them that publishing in both eBook and hardcover is exactly what digital disruption requires.
Some erroneously assume that digital disruption only applies to cases where digital products replace physical ones. It’s true that when mobile banking replaces teller banking or digital music wipes out CDs, we call this digital disruption. But as I show in my book, there are many more ways that digital disrupts, ultimately creating more disruptions, more rapidly, in more industries, including – as I write in the book – industries as analog as pharmaceuticals and military camouflage.
The travel poster might read something like this: “Satisfy your thirst for adventure on the newest frontier with a luxury, guided expedition to the latest exoplanet.” Like just about everyone else on this planet, you’ve probably seen, heard, or know something about the film Avatar. What you may not know is that Pandora is based on a very real and recently discovered solar system — Alpha Centauri.
It has about the same mass as Earth. Like Earth, it circles a star. And at a mere 4.4 light years away (just a hop, skip, and a jump in astronomical terms), it’s close enough to make an interstellar journey feasible. While Alpha Centauri isn’t habitable (minor detail), some of its neighbors might be. As intriguing as such a journey would be, it would also be daunting. It would require an in-depth analysis of a constellation of factors. And it would mean asking and answering a litany of questions. What would a successful journey look like? What would it take to reach the destination in terms of technology? What kind of budget would be required? How do you convince early voyagers that a trip to Alpha Centauri would be the best journey of their lives and answer their WIIFM (what’s in it for me) questions?
Wednesday night, Sony hosted what was reported to be a crowd of more than a thousand people at a rare, Applesque new-product demo. There it debuted the next-generation Playstation, officially dubbed the PS4. The event lasted two hours and featured some of the most accomplished game developers in the world, all on stage to promise that the PS4 was going to make gaming even more lifelike, more responsive, and more addicting than it already is.
I could have saved the company the two hours and the cost of hosting the event. Because boil Sony's announcement down to its essence, and you get these simple words: Sony believes the future will be like the past and has built the game console to prove it.
Don't get me wrong; the console is definitely next-generation (or at least, the specs are next-generation, since the console itself did not make an appearance at the event). It has stunning graphics and the kind of processing power necessary to create lifelike movement and even give game characters artificial-intelligence capabilities that should make hardcore gamers hungry with anticipation for the end of the year (the most specific Sony got about the release timeframe).
When companies adopt digital, they do old things in new ways. When companies internalize digital — make it part of their mindset — they find entirely new things to do and new ways to do them. They become digital disruptors, and they swiftly go on to take over the markets they set their sights on.
The best proof I have of the power of mindset to put a company ahead during an era of transition has nothing to do with digital or even business. The evidence comes from the Comanche Indians, who dominated the American Southwest through the 1700s and most of the 1800s because of a spectacular new technology they not only adopted, but internalized: the horse. As perfectly described by S.C. Gwynne in his bestselling book, Empire of the Summer Moon, dozens of tribes across the Great Plains had horses. But most of these tribes saw the horse as a new way to do an old thing: to get from point A to point B. Just faster and with more things in tow.
Comanches, on the other hand, internalized the possibilities of the horse, aligning their entire “business” around them. That mindset opened them to new possibilities that others missed. They became skilled breeders, they rethought their cultural practices and values, and they tested the limits of horses to see just how far this enabling technology could take them. For most of the 1800s, Texas Rangers and US Army majors struggled in vain to subdue the Comanches.
I love the Oscars with all of its glitz and glamour, celebrating the year’s best films. And while this year’s crop of Lincoln, Argo, and The Silver Linings Playbookare all great films, one of my all-time favorites is still Moneyball. Although the discussion about the Moneyballstory isn’t new, it’s still a great lesson of what we can learn about using data and insights in new ways to change the game. Billy Beane harnessed the power of data based insights to assemble a winning team. He ignored the conventional measures of success — batting averages and stolen bases — and hired a number cruncher to rewrite the rules of the game. By applying data-based insights to day-to-day decisions, Beane stacked up win after win, ultimately challenging the American League record for consecutive wins.