Tablets and disruptive innovation

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Aug 28, 2015

It used to be that most devices in schools were desktop machines of either the Windows or Apple varieties, but recently many schools have been switching to mobile devices like the iPad or web-based devices like the Chromebook. Although there are compelling reasons for schools to adopt these new devices—foremost of which are the low cost and portability of these devices—switching has its tradeoffs. Tablets are great for watching videos, reading books and articles, taking pictures, or playing interactive educational games, but they falter when it comes to typing up essays or preparing other documents. Chromebooks are simple to use and easy to setup and manage, but the software is limited to web applications that run in an Internet browser. And although there is a growing push for schools to go paperless, neither a tablet nor Chromebook is a perfect replacement for old-fashioned paper notebooks. They don’t provide the benefits of  taking handwritten notes, and it’s difficult for students use them as scratchpads for diagramming and problem solving.

Enter the Surface
Given the drawbacks of tablets and Chromebooks, I was quite excited when Microsoft came out with its Surface line a few years ago. The Surface gives users the simple touch-screen interface of a tablet, a nicely integrated stylus for making drawings or taking hand-written notes, a screen cover that doubles as a keyboard with trackpad for work that involves serious typing, and the ability to run not only mobile and web apps, but also programs built for traditional desktop machines. (In full disclosure, I recently received a Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft.)

If we evaluate the Surface using the theory of interdependence and modularity, Microsoft’s strategy with the Surface seems quite smart. When technologies are new, they often underperform at meeting customers’ needs. In these circumstances, the systems that come closest to meeting customers’ performance expectations are those with proprietary architectures that are integrated across all of the performance-defining subcomponents of the system. Thus, Microsoft’s move into the hardware business for its Surface devices makes a lot of sense. By developing both the hardware and the operating system for the Surface, Microsoft has been able to knit together the physical and virtual user interfaces to provide an optimized user experience.

The Surface and disruptive innovation
In today’s market, the Surface is a great product for anyone who wants the functionality of a laptop and the convenience and usability of a best-in-class tablet without having to carry around two devices. Yet, despite these features and functionality, the theory of disruptive innovation points to a foreboding future for the Surface.

According to the theory, innovations can be grouped into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining innovations are innovations that improve an established technology to meet the needs of its established customer base. These are innovations such as faster processors and high resolution screens. In contrast, disruptive innovations are innovations that initially look crummy when evaluated by mainstream customers along traditional dimensions of performance, but that offer benefits such as affordability, portability, convenience, or ease of use, which make them accessible and appealing to nonconsumers and to the least demanding customers in the established market. In the short-run, established organizations and customers usually focus on sustaining innovations because disruptive innovations initially look unappealing to them. In the long run, however, disruptive innovations improve over time until they eventually transform a sector by outperforming incumbent technology on both the old and new measures of performance.

Recently, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Heather Staker expanded on the theory of disruptive innovation to explain a phenomenon they’ve termed hybrid innovation. Hybrid innovation is a special type of sustaining innovation that attempts to offer mainstream customers the reliability and performance of incumbent technologies, while simultaneously providing some of the benefits of new disruptive technologies. Examples of hybrid innovations include ships built in the 19th century with both sails and steam engines, excavators built in the 1960s that were controlled with both cables and hydraulics, cars of today that have both gasoline engines and electric motors, and blended-learning models that use traditional whole class instruction in conjunction with online learning.

To identify a hybrid innovation, Christensen, Horn, and Staker found four common characteristics:

  1. It includes both the old and new technology, whereas a pure disruption does not offer the old technology in its full form.
  2. It targets existing customers, rather than nonconsumers—that is, those whose alternative to using the new technology is nothing at all.
  3. It tries to do the job of the preexisting technology. As a result, the performance hurdle required to delight the existing customers is quite high because the hybrid must do the job at least as well as the incumbent product on its own, as judged by the original definition of performance. In contrast, companies that succeed at disruptive innovations generally take the capabilities of the new technology as a given and look for markets that will accept the new definition of what’s good.
  4. It tends to be less “foolproof ” than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.

When we look at the Surface line through the theory of disruptive innovation, it fits the definition of a hybrid innovation to a T.

  1. The Surface combines the old and new technology: The devices operate with a fully-functional version of the Windows 10 operating system, with all its advanced settings and its ability to run traditional desktop programs. At the same time, Windows 10 has a tablet mode that is optimized for use on a touch-screen with large buttons and icons, simplified settings and menu options, and mobile-style apps available through an apps store.
  2. The Surface targets existing customers: Microsoft advertises the Surface as “the tablet that can replace your laptop” and prices it like a laptop. In other words, the target customer for the Surface is someone who already owns a laptop.
  3. The Surface tries to do the job of the preexisting technology: A Surface is built to do everything that a Windows laptop can do. This means that it needs a faster processor and more storage than a pure tablet.
  4. The Surface tends to be less “foolproof”: Although the Windows 10 tablet mode offers a simpler and more user-friendly interface, the complexity of the legacy Windows OS is still buried in the background. People who use desktop programs on the device will still at times need to access the confusing advanced features in the old-school Windows control panel and file structure. Also, the fact that the the device runs traditional desktop programs that aren’t vetted through an app store and aren’t as restricted as mobile apps in their access to system files and resources makes it easier for users to accidentally misconfigure system settings when installing and using these programs. When this happens, users have to either develop advanced troubleshooting skills or take the device to an expert for reconfiguration. And although Windows 10 is far more intuitive and user-friendly than older versions Windows, it still isn’t quite as intuitive and simple as Apple’s iOS.

Implications of being a hybrid innovation
The Surface’s position as a hybrid innovation has both positive and negative implications for Microsoft. In the current market, the Surface is likely to delight Microsoft’s established customer base. It does everything their old laptops could do, plus more. In the long run, however, simpler and cheaper devices are going to improve until they completely disrupt the market that Microsoft is attempting to hold onto with the Surface.

Currently, other lower-cost devices lack the functionality that most laptop users expect. These laptops lack a good interface for writing and editing large bodies of text and their apps don’t have all the features advanced users need for things like word processing, graphic design, spreadsheet work, or photo and video editing. It is almost certain, however, that these devices will continue to improve until they can do all the jobs of a laptop, but with a more convenient user interface and at a fraction of the cost. For example, many iPad and Android tablet users are finding ways to do word processing with their devices by connecting Bluetooth keyboards, and Google now has a touchscreen Chromebook that doubles as tablet. Meanwhile, the number of apps available for these devices continues to grow and the best apps continue to improve in functionality. And as these devices disrupt laptops, Google is concurrently disrupting Microsoft Office desktop programs with its web-based Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

To compete with pure tablets and Chromebooks in the long game, Microsoft needs a slimmed-down operating system and a simpler set of Office programs. But the innovator’s dilemma for Microsoft is that producing crummy versions of its bread-and-butter software would frustrate current Windows and Office users and undermine its profit margins. Microsoft made an attempt at this strategy with Windows RT—a simplified version of Windows for some of its first Surface tablets—but abandoned that strategy when it released the Surface 3 back in May of this year. Unfortunately, Microsoft is going to have a hard time finding the will to compete at the low end until it is too late.

Looking ahead to a bright present
All the portents of disruption aside, current laptop users should keep in mind that the Surface is a great laptop upgrade for those who are willing to pay laptop prices for a tablet with laptop capabilities. Furthermore, the recent release of Windows 10 is a fantastic improvement over Microsoft’s first attempt to combine desktop and tablet interfaces in Windows 8. In short, if you use a laptop for anything more than browsing the Internet, the disruptive mobile alternatives are probably still not good enough for meeting all your computing needs. Meanwhile, the Surface does a fantastic job at letting your laptop double as a tablet.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.