A few weeks ago, Michael Horn used the theory of modularity and interdependence to explain why Google’s Chromebooks are stealing market share in K–12 education device sales from Apple and Microsoft. In his post, Horn points out that “[t]he shift toward Internet-centric computing is creating demand for dis-integration between operating systems and software.” Chromebooks can only run cloud-based software that interfaces with the devices using standardized web browser protocols. But schools today find that Chromebooks’ low cost and simplicity outweigh the benefits of paying for more sophisticated software and devices that integrate with Microsoft’s or Apple’s operating systems. As a general rule, one of the prime patterns of disruptive innovation happens when an industry shifts from proprietary, interdependent technology architectures to more modular and flexible architectures. Edtech developers should take note.

But a more nuanced analysis reveals that the world is a bit more complicated: a winning technology strategy is more than just a choice between building an interdependent architecture versus building a modular architecture. In reality, Chromebooks, Apple devices, and Windows-based devices are each both interdependent and modular; that is, the interfaces between various parts of their systems are more interdependent in some instances and more modular in others. For example, the Windows operating system, while more interdependent than Chrome OS, has modular interfaces for connecting with hardware. This is why companies such as Samsung, Dell, and Lenovo can all build hardware for Windows machines. As another example, Google integrates its cloud-based file storage system, Google Drive, with its Chrome OS operating system and its browser-based email client, Gmail, similar to how Microsoft integrated its Office software with its Windows operating system back in the 1990s. Lastly, any device that has an app store or a USB port relies on modular interfaces for connecting third party software and hardware with the device.

The real key to a winning technology strategy is to know which parts of your architecture should be proprietary and which parts should be modular. As a general rule, the best technology architectures have interdependent and proprietary interfaces across the components that matter most for meeting customers’ needs in circumstances in which performance still isn’t good enough, and modular interfaces across the components for which customers value customizability and flexibility over raw performance.

To see this principle in action, consider contrasting examples in GPS navigation. With the iPhone, many users find that the built-in maps app provides a better user experience than Google’s downloadable maps app because Apple integrates its built-in app with the iPhone’s operating system, iOS. For example, suppose that while using the iPhone’s built-in maps app you turn off the screen to save battery power, but then need to quickly check an upcoming direction as you approach an intersection. When you push the phone’s power button, the map and directions show up immediately on the lock screen. You don’t have to sign in to your phone and open the app to see the next driving direction because Apple Maps is integrated with iOS. Additionally, if you need to get new directions while driving, the integration between Apple Maps and iOS allows you to use the iPhone’s built-in voice command assistant, Siri, to get directions from Apple Maps without having to look at the screen. In contrast, when using the Google Maps app on the iPhone, you have to unlock the phone, navigate the apps menu, and open the app in order to get directions.

Google may not be able to integrate its maps app with Apple’s iOS, but Google’s app has other integration advantages that make it the preferred choice for other iPhone users. Because Google Maps is integrated with Google’s internet-search technology, many iPhone users find that Google Maps returns better search results than Apple Maps when they are trying to do things like search for nearby restaurants or get directions to a destination for which they do not know the exact name or street address.

So which is better, Apple Maps or Google Maps? It depends on what you need them to do. If you need the maps app to be convenient and user-friendly because you are using it while driving, then Apple Maps is your best bet. But if usability is less important (perhaps because you are walking, not driving) and information accuracy is your priority, then you should probably go with Google Maps.

For edtech companies, the two keys to success are first, to figure out the jobs that schools, teachers, and students need help accomplishing and then, to determine which parts of your solutions’ architecture define your ability to meet those jobs. Once you’ve answered those two questions, the path forward is simple: build your solution so that it is integrated and proprietary across the parts of the architecture that define performance and modular across the parts of the architecture for which modular interoperability is more than good enough.

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  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.