Disruptive vs. Sustainable

Anachronistic TechnologyIt has been driving me a little nuts over the last few years with all the drivel posts on ‘disruptive’ this and ‘disruptive’ that, particularly when ‘sustainable’ was the catch-phrase from a few years ago that still lingers doubtfully in the verbage of non-profits. In fact, I tend to gloss over ‘disruptive’ these days when it shows up because so many people don’t balance it with sustainability.

You see, I was fortunate enough to read The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms To Fail back when it first came out in 1997 – I still have a copy of the first revision. So for this post, and some thoughts on a potential startup or two, I referred back to what I consider the best work out there on disruption and sustainability.

Here are the high points from the Introduction of Christensen’s book.  I use ‘product’ as an interchangeable word for ‘service’ in this context since a service is a product of sorts.

Sustaining Technology

  • Can be discontinuous or radical (so many internet posts seem to confuse this with disruptive when it can be either),
  • Can be of an incremental nature, or as I like to think of it, iterative.
  • Improves performance of established products along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in majority markets historically value.
  • Largely the most advancements in an industry.

Disruptive Technology:

  • Results in worse product performance, at least in the near term (in the majority market context).
  • Brings to market a very different value proposition.
  • Under-performs in established markets.
  • Has new fringe features/functionality.
  • Is typically cheaper, smaller, simpler and has more frequent use.
  • Lower margins, not greater profits.
  • Typically is embraced by the least profitable customers of the majority market.

These are very, very simple ways of looking at the differences between the two. A startup can utilize disruptive technologies and enter the market, but there has to be a plan for sustainability (other than being bought by another company) to present itself as a value proposition to anyone involved.

And that’s the key issue that most of the posts I’ve read on disruptive anything fail to mention. Sure, there is risk, but where there is risk, there should be risk mitigation. Don’t get me wrong, I understand solving problems as they come, but only presenting one half of disruptive technology – or disruptive anything, for that matter, is disingenuous.

The disruption of today, to be successful, should be successful tomorrow. Sustainability. Sustainability is why alternating current is used to transmit power over long distances, marketing is why people still think that Edison was more inventor than he was and that Marconi invented the radio.

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Better Mousetraps.

Head in HandsIn ‘Solving All The Wrong Problems‘, Allison Arief tackles something that has been bothering me for some time:

…We are overloaded daily with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk of the above list targets a very specific (and tiny!) slice of the population. As one colleague in tech explained it to me recently, for most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do…

I’ve always wanted to work on things that matter, that actually have a positive impact on the world or society. Over the last 2 decades, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a few things that did.

It seems more rare to find work like that. And it seems like it’s not a pressing issue when it comes to business, either. The great revelation for me was the lawsuit between iFart and PullMyFinger back in 2009, where millions of dollars are spent on making sounds on demand that most mammals can make for free, but it’s more endemic and less obvious.

All those features that you don’t use are bought and paid for by someone – yes, even Free Software and Open Source.

Allison Arief is correct, and it’s something that is irksome. We’ve been solving all the wrong problems. It would be good to work on some of the right ones – but the risk of working on one of the right ones is high because people don’t necessarily want to pay for ‘useful’.

The market drives.

1 TANSTAAFL: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Even if you pay nothing for software, it doesn’t write itself and basic amenities are required by humans to write it. Remember that the next time your company leverages open source and doesn’t give back to the project in some way.

The Future Is Not The Enterprise You Know

Greetings from Guyana to New YorkStory time.

When I was in Georgetown, Guyana in 20051, I snapped that picture of the television in my room. People called in to the station to relay messages to expatriates in New York so that they wouldn’t incur the cost of a phone call from the local phone company.

In the developed world, or the Global North, or the West, or whatever you want to call it, VoIP had already shaken telecommunications by 2005 and won. In the other parts of the world, state-owned or subsidized telephone companies fought to stay relevant.

In the context of Guyana, it took until 2015 for the Caribbean Court of Justice to rule against the telephone company. And I imagine that battle isn’t over. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen it in my travels, and it’s not the first technology either. It also won’t be the last.

Having now worked a bit directly with telephony and SIP trunks, spending late nights catching up to where the company was and then studying beyond it2, I have a good feel for what is possible. And I also know that the future is global, that infrastructure is subject to licensing across geopolitical lines, and that technology waits for nothing but ideas whose time has come. Having been involved at the World Summit for Information Society level at first directly and now vicariously, to get global the industries built around Enterprise have to change. Having been a part of a Pre-twitter clone (we copied them when we grabbed a flux capacitor?), we saw things change a year before Twitter. That change is coming regardless of how much people are in love with the present enterprise. Evolution awaits no one.

So, what’s the future?

We hear a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT). How disruptive it is. Most of that is marketing hype to get all of us to buy things that we really have no need for – and, to be fair, people usually buy it for reasons that I might write about on my other blog3. Behind all of that is an undeniable force of change that goes beyond the buzzwords.

A few data-points to draw the line for you.

Data-point 1: Telecommunications infrastructure is no longer the product it once was because of SIP (which most of you know as VoIP, but it’s bigger than that). It’s about the on demand use of the telecommunications infrastructure. You can think of it as time-sharing real estate without the need to worry about the last person leaving dishes in the sink.

Data-point 2: The laws governing telecommunication infrastructure vary across geopolitical lines and proceed at the rate of the internal geopolitical bureaucracy. That’s a nasty factor that everyone should know, but most people don’t.

Data-point 3: Oh, that little Internet of Things has spawned all manner of things, like the 10 Pine64s I have coming next month. I’ll be clustering those for my own purposes – but imagine those as part of a solution that, for less than $500. Do you think I’ll be paying Oracle or Microsoft for licensing for a database? If you think so, you’re nutty and should have your head examined. Even open source DBAs are cheaper.

Data-point 4: Bitcoin brought the block chain to light.  Think of a client as part of a Peer to Peer network where the client deals with licensing within their geopolitical sphere (see 2), thus avoiding licensing fees across geopolitical boundaries wherever possible, and otherwise diminishing them. Take a look at this post on blockchain, posted by Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President and Director, IBM Research. Or consider how Microsoft has been rolling Windows 10 out… peer-to-peer.

Data-point 5: Open source software has come so far that the cost of the software itself for applications has diminished significantly – you don’t pay for software, you pay for the changes to it if you want the changes… or you pay for people to configure it for you.

Data-point 6: ‘Big data’, another overblown marketing phrase, is a driving force that will not be stopped – it will hopefully be curtailed for reasons of privacy, but again and again the world has shown that it abhors censorship and will – at the cost of individuals, corporations, or entire governments, if necessary – be had.

What does it all mean?

It means that a company’s infrastructure, unless it’s spread out over a large area, is pretty much going to be an antique soon. People espousing details on the how of Software Engineering will develop are likely to completely miss the what of the development; the what of development should be defining the how (Software Process 101).

The ‘data-center’ will not die. It will become less important and probably used to roll out continuous integration to a peer-to-peer network of SaaS. Data will make its way to whatever monstrosity of a database that’s out there, and if I were a betting man I’d go with Oracle more than Microsoft on that since they’re acquisition of MySQL probably wasn’t an accident. Sure, it’s not an RDBMS, but what’s the most used database on the Internet? And who now has a thermometer?

It’s happening. Now.

1: Doing some volunteer work with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. IBM had quoted a million Guyanese dollars to do the local network for the hospital; we got a group of volunteers around the hospital to do it for the price of a pizza on a weekend. Sadly, because of internal bureaucracy, the network was not used when I left, but I do hope that changed in my absence.

2: Trying to plan for the future like any good engineer.

3: RealityFragments.com, where I focus on more creative and opinionated writing on things that aren’t technology.

Social Networks Don’t Make Sense To You?

3D Social NetworkingI was sitting by myself eating lunch, with only my Kindle as company, when I heard from a voice from another table say that they didn’t understand how to use LinkedIn.

A few other people agreed. One or two shook their heads in not-so-mock consternation. Having overheard this group before – beware solitary people with Kindles eating lunch – I knew that these were business folk. Marketers. Salespeople. And while there was a part of me that wanted to say something, I decided to be quiet and consider what they said.

After all, they’re right.

They don’t understand it. They owned that. In the grand scheme of things, that really isn’t a failure – social networks are hardly transparent in how they work, and they do allow people to think that it’s about the members of the community when the bottom line says it is not. There’s no shame in not understanding how social networks work, or don’t. There’s no shame in that at all, and coming to that conclusion within a moment or two, I listened some more.

I mean, really, social networks suck. They almost always show us things that we don’t want to see while somehow failing to show us what we need to see. Renowned sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, said that social networks are traps – and largely, they are.

This leads us to the first thing you need to understand.

Social Networks Are Not About You

I know, I know, we all would like to think so as we impress upon each other our politics, our perspectives and our silliness – not to mention kittens.

Follow the logic:

  • The social network belongs to a company. =>
  • The company isn’t altruistic, it needs to make money. =>
  • The company makes money based on advertising and selling what they find out about you. =>
  • You are the product that buys and whose information is sold.

An antiquated perspective would say, “Well, then we’re in charge!”. The idea that you could control what is bought of you and sold to you is a bit naive at best; at worst it’s a simple matter of giving yourself away in bytes.

So then we like to think that, like a casino or lottery, we will come out the winner when no one else is beating the house. A few do. The majority will not. Despite your best efforts, you’re likely to be a part of the majority rather than the minority.

If that sounds bleak, well, shucks, I apologize for being the guy who gives you the news, but I do expect you to thank me at some point when it sinks in.

Now that we have established that it isn’t about you, you’re ready for the second point.

Social Networks Are Not Designed For You.

Wow, I’m just pulling down your worldview. It’s a bummer, I know, but someone pretty intelligent said to me recently, “the person who reads the reports makes the decisions, not the one who uses the user interface” (take a bow, M.E.). That summarizes it quite well.

The people who pay for your data and who pay the owner of the social network to sell you stuff are the ones who drive the interface. You’re just a statistic. They might tell you that they’re warm and fuzzy human beings, but that warm and fuzzy goes away fast when the black line falters.

And yet, I must make the final point.

Social Networks Can Benefit You.

When you realize that you’re just a squirrel in their world trying to get your nut, you learn how to gather your nuts by paying attention.

The first rule of being popular on a social network – something I’ve never tried to do except professionally – is not to be like everyone else. Your posts need to represent what you want your digital shadow to be seen for.

If you have a business, you should stand out not just with better products and services – what do you mean you don’t have those? Go get them and then finish reading this– you have to stand out. The best and easiest way to stand out is to be yourself. Don’t just post things about your company. Post things that people find interesting, and if you have good salespeople and marketers, they can give you input so you can at least fake it to the demographics you’re looking for.

If you’re an individual, take the risk of being yourself. Don’t post pictures of your food. Don’t use a professional network to explore your love life candidly. Use the funny shaped thing inside your skull, equidistant between your ears.

You may not be popular.

You’ll have a presence, and really, that’s the only way to leverage a social network your way. Be interesting, or as close to interesting as you (or your company) can abide.

I encourage you to read this LinkedIn post as well:

Your Personal Brand and LinkedIn