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. 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:
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:
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:
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.