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.

Article Continues Below

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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.

7 Reader Comments

  1. Great article. It’s so easy to forget that an ever increasing number of users will have a mobile only web experience. When researching for a project for Saudi Arabia we discovered 2 of the 6 million active Facebook users view it strictly on mobile devices!

  2. Sure, the mobile internet will grow where there is no alternative. But not just because it’s the only choice. It will grow also because it is better in many ways. It is very likely that mobile internet will lower the need for standard internet and will slow down the development of standard internet in some areas.

    Simplicity is probably a key feature of mobile internet that miss the standard internet.

    It is straight forward to switch on a mobile phone or tablet and start surfing the internet. Every issues can be solved in the factory, in the shop or remotely. It just works straight out of the box. Comparing to all the issues you could have to set-up a computer and a working Internet access (buy the computer, subscribe a broadband access, plug everything, setup everything…). The overall mobile ecosystem do compete against fixed/PC ecosystem from that point of view.

    Touch technology is also a far more advanced technology than keyboard and mouse. This is a premium choice technology for user interface and it is spreading quickly from high-end mobile device to mass-market mobile device.

    Furthermore, device constraints have led to very innovative and efficient user-interfaces. Network, CPU, screen constraints have been turn into strengths resulting in better services. Even if you have an alternative, you might prefer the mobile version to the full web version.

  3. This is a compelling case for dealing with the pain of creating a good multi-device experience.

    It’s not just about the traffic we have today. It’s about the traffic we’ll never have if we don’t take action.

  4. Good article,

    I think this might be a typo though: “Mobile will be better than the desktop—but it will succeed on what it does uniquely well.”

    Maybe you meant “will not be better”?

    -lp

  5. The points in this article help to drive home the point that the focus of any web design (or redesign) should be on the content and not on a specific device or set of devices. It’s time to stop wasting time evaluating device usage and focus on what we can control—the content—and how we can deliver that in the simplest and best way possible.

  6. Great column!

    “Mobile won’t always be a secondary device or a limited, on-the-go use case. Mobile will be the internet.”

    In some markets, often in lower-income areas, this is already the case — comes with unique behaviors, usage patterns, and everything else that we’ve come to expect from the mobile segment of our sites, but from the majority of users.

    With certain projects I’ve had the chance to be a part of, desktop usage has been sub-10% — and these are not geared as mobile sites, but sites with a demographic that favors mobile devices, for either economic or preferential reasons.

    Mobile is already the internet for entire populations!

  7. Phil, I talk a lot about the mobile-only user. That behavior is an important driver of disruption, because disruption happens from the low end. When people talk about mobile-only use, it’s easy to focus on the billions of people in developing countries who gain their first access to the internet from a mobile device. But there are many people like that here in the US too. Of the 55% of Americans who say they have ever gone online using their phone, 31% of those say that’s the way they only or mostly go online. I have a lot more to say about the mobile only user here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/05/the_rise_of_the_mobile-only_us.html

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA

Nothing Fails Like Success

Our own @zeldman paints the complicated catch-22 that our free, democratized web has with our money-making capitalist roots. As creators, how do we untangle this web? #LetsFixThis