In 1964 the CDC 6600 was the world’s most powerful supercomputer. Three times as fast as its closest rival, the CDC 6600 was considered a bargain at a price of $5 million, filled a good sized room, and was capable of executing a then-impressive 3 million floating point operations per second (FLOPS).
The subsequent explosion in processing power means that the most basic of today’s desktop computers are capable of several billion operations per second.
More than a hundred CDC 6600s were built, but even their combined computing power wouldn’t have come close to matching a cheap modern mobile phone.
In the decades since the launch of the CDC 6600 computers have become smaller, vastly more powerful, and affordable enough to be accessible to everybody. It’s a remarkable trend that was foreseen by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, in 1965.
Moore noted that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since their invention. This meant that computer chips were becoming twice as powerful every year.
While Moore initially believed this exponential increase in computing power might last for something in the region of five to ten years, it is only now that the end1 appears to be in sight.
The Computer Chip Revolution
Thomas J Watson of IBM reportedly claimed that there would be a worldwide market for about five computers. Since it is estimated there are now well in excess of one billion computers in existence, it was not one of history’s most insightful predictions.
It has become increasingly difficult to even distinguish between what is and what isn’t a computer. As computer chips have conformed to Moore’s law by becoming smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, it has become economically viable to include them in a dizzying array of products.
Everything from toasters, to automobiles, greeting cards, and even shoes and fishing reels2 have been enhanced with digital technology.
In 1997 Clayton Christensen coined the term disruptive innovation3, referring to an emerging technology that disrupts or entirely displaces an established one.
Christensen described these disruptive technologies as initially inferior to existing products. For example, the first liquid-crystal-display (LCD) televisions commanded only a niche market because their picture quality was markedly inferior to cathode ray technology (CRT) screens. In 2007, almost twenty years after their commercial launch, sales of LCD screens surpassed CRT for the first time. LCD televisions and monitors had retained their advantages of being compact and lightweight, while improvements in the technology gradually closed the gap in quality.
Clayton Christensen’s ideas remain hugely influential, but it has been argued that the exponential increase in computing power has rendered this picture of slowly emerging disruptive technology as largely obsolete.
Big Bang Disruption
In 2014 Larry Downes and Paul Nunes introduced the world to the concept of Big Bang Disruption4. Big Bang Disrupters behave differently to the disrupters described by Christensen. They don’t emerge on the edges of the market, they explode into being fully-formed, almost as if out of nowhere.
Big Bang Disruptors are able to compete with established products right from their release, offering superior features, more customisation, and all of this is often made available to the customer at a better price.
Thanks to more than half a century of exponentially increasing computing power, the invention of the internet, and the advent of cloud computing, it’s become possible for innovators to combine existing technologies to launch new products that are immediately superior to those they threaten to displace.
Downes and Nunes put forward Google Maps as a prime example of a Big Bang Disruptor. When Google announced that it would offer GPS directions on android phones in 2009, shares in TomTom5 and other navigation service providers plummeted by 20% overnight.
Google Maps offered all of the features available on a traditional satellite navigation device, with the added advantage that it could be accessed through a smartphone. TomTom would be fighting a losing battle to match the functionality and convenience of Google Maps, but with Google Maps available for free they had already lost the war on price.
TomTom became a victim of Big Bang Disruption, and they took the hit from a company that hadn’t even traditionally been a competitor.
Surviving Big Bang Disruption
Under Clayton Christensen’s model of disruptive technology, established firms had enough time to spot the disruption coming and react accordingly. The rapid march of technology means that Big Bang Disruptors such as Google Maps are far more explosive and difficult to foresee.
The very nature of Big Bang Disruption means that it’s impossible for organisations to completely shield themselves against its shockwaves. The best defence is an understanding of the new reality of disruptive technology and an ability to innovate and diversify.
TomTom could have been destroyed by Google, but the company proved to be agile enough to survive. While TomTom no longer dominates the GPS market, the company has branched out6 into wearable technology and positioned itself to take advantage of the forthcoming driverless car revolution.