The Alternative is Nothing

The history of technology innovation is the history of disruption. New technologies become available and disrupt the market for more-established, higher-end products. We’re witnessing one of the latest waves of technological disruption, as mobile devices put access to the internet in the hands of people who previously never had that power.

We’re witnessing one of the latest waves of technological disruption, as mobile devices put access to the internet in the hands of people who previously never had that power. Always-available connectivity through PCs and broadband connections has already transformed the lives of people who have it. Mobile internet will do the same for an even larger population worldwide.

Despite examples from countless industries where disruption has taken place, it’s easy to pretend that it won’t happen to the web. Today’s mobile internet is janky. It’s slow. It’s hard to navigate. It offers only a paltry subset of what’s available on the desktop. It’s hard to imagine anyone truly preferring it.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that lower quality and less-than-adequate performance is, in fact, at the heart of what makes disruptive innovation happen:

In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies,” because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.

—Larissa MacFarquahar, The New Yorker

Disruptive technologies aren’t competitive at the start

In terms of quality, disruptive technologies don’t compete. They often have a less-polished design or are crafted of lower-quality materials, equivalent functionality (like bandwidth or memory) costs more compared to earlier products, and they don’t perform as well on key metrics.

People often point at the failings of the mobile internet as rationale for why it won’t overtake the desktop web. “No one will ever want to do that on mobile” gets used to justify short-sighted decisions. Truth is, we can’t predict all the ways that people will want to use mobile in the future. Jason Grigsby, co-author of Head First Mobile Web(with Lyza Danger Gardner) says “We can’t predict future behavior from a current experience that sucks.”

Disruption happens from the low end

Disruptive technologies take off because they create a new market for a product. People who previously could not afford a particular technology get access to it, in a form that (at least at the start) is less powerful and of lower quality. These people aren’t comparing between the more established technology and the new one. They have no other alternative.

McKinsey estimates that the mobile internet could bring billions of people online:

However, the full potential of the mobile Internet is yet to be realized; over the coming decade, this technology could fuel significant transformation and disruption, not least from the possibility that the mobile Internet could bring two billion to three billion more people into the connected world and the global economy.

Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy

Disruptive technologies eventually improve

Over time, the quality of low-end technology improves. As more and more people buy into a cheaper, less-capable technology, more attention and focus goes toward refining it. Eventually, it overtakes its larger, more capable predecessor.

This is the challenge we face in mobile right now. Mobile won’t always be a secondary device or a limited, on-the-go use case. Mobile will be the internet. Comparing its shortcomings to what the desktop web does well is missing the point. Mobile will be_better_ than the desktop—but it will succeed on what it does uniquely well.

McKinsey estimates the astonishing potential economic upside of the mobile internet:

We estimate that for the applications we have sized, the mobile Internet could generate annual economic impact of $3.7 trillion to $10.8 trillion globally by 2025. This value would come from three main sources: improved delivery of services, productivity increases in select work categories, and the value from Internet use for the new Internet users who are likely to be added in 2025, assuming that they will use wireless access either all or part of the time.

Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy

Today, the mobile internet provides a lousy experience. For billions of people coming online across the world, it will be their first (and only) way to access the web. The history of disruptive innovation shows that it’s okay if the mobile internet provides a less-than-adequate experience today. Most mobile internet users won’t be comparing between the desktop web and the mobile web. For these people, the alternative is_nothing_.

Tomorrow, the mobile internet will provide a better experience. It’s up to us to make it happen.


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