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Formally Defining a Disruptive Technology

Web technologies are mostly driven by a single principle: disruption. It’s not enough to take an existing concept and digitize it in a way that creates efficiencies of scale and cost savings. Such an approach has a very short product cycle that rarely justifies the research and development costs involved.

To succeed in the digital realm, technology has to provide a strong disruptive element right from the start. If things cannot be done differently, a transition to digital is not going to be compelling enough for a wide enough adoption to create sustainability.

Clayton M. Christensen, author of the popular book The Innovator’s Dilemma, stated in a paper published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management that disruption is a process rather than an event. He cited three types of situations where innovation leads to disruption:

  • “(1) Innovations that are financially unattractive to the leading incumbents. These essentially comprise the low-end and new-market disruptions.
  • “(2) Innovations that are financially attractive to the leading incumbents. These comprise the innovations that are categorized as sustaining.
  • “(3) Innovations that are unattainable to the incumbent leaders, because the technology or capital requirements are simply beyond the reach of the incumbent leaders.”

Christensen’s definitions of situations with disruptive potential place the Google+ Hangout feature in a starring position on the Web. Ever since the first website went up, web technologies have been driven by a push toward greater interactivity and real-time or near-real-time connection. The primary force driving this lies in the peculiarity of the digital medium.

The online world is a distributed, noncentralized model that lacks central authorities, physical addresses, and policing units. As a result, trust, a quality that in the offline world is generated through personal contact, visual clues, and a tangible presence, in the digital world relies on content and contextual clues gleaned from interaction.

We are hard-wired to engage with those we trust, and this hard-wiring has led to a constant push for greater interaction and connection on the Web. Both interaction and our desire for connectivity stem from the fact that we need to fill the vacuum left by a lack of visual clues and physical presence with something that will perform the job they did. On the Web these tasks are performed by the way we interact, the content we share and, now, the visual connections we make through Google+ Hangouts.

Rather than seeing the Hangout as the final step in the technological evolution of the Web, we need to understand that it is one more step that has been put in place to help accumulate the clues we need in order to make a judgment of where we should place our trust.

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