Lessons in Disruption From Steve Jobs

Ten years ago, when we had our first child, my wife and I bought a $1,000 video camera that had many features. One of these features was an infrared capability that allowed us to take videos of our sleeping child at night. We used the feature once and then we never looked at it again. Today, with our third child, our video camera sits on the shelf gathering dust and we use our iPhone to take videos.

The iPhone camera app does not have a fraction of the features of our video camera but it is convenient to use and the videos that we make can easily be uploaded to the Internet. The iPhone camera app is a “good enough” solution, a classic disruptive technology that was brought to life courtesy of Apple and Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest disruptors of all time. Apple products beginning with the letter “i” have disrupted almost every form of personal media. Apple disrupted the music industry with the iPod, proceeded to disrupt mobile software, photography, and the Blackberry with the iPhone, and finally is disrupting the publishing industry and the personal computer with the iPad. All the while, Jobs was removing features that we thought we couldn’t live without. The iMac got rid of the floppy drive and the 2-button mouse. The iPhone is light on security features compared to the Blackberry. And the iPad has eliminated both the keyboard and the mouse.

Perhaps Jobs learned his lesson in his so-called “years in the wilderness” away from Apple when he developed the NeXT computer for the higher education market. As described in Bloomberg Businessweek, the computer was overloaded with features and it ended up being a commercial failure:

At NeXT by contrast, Jobs crammed the Hartmut Esslinger-designed cube-shaped computer with every shiny new toy he could find. There was an Ethernet port for easy networking; a microphone and speech-processing software, a patented, hard-to-manufacture monitor stand; and a magneto-optical drive. The result was a computer that cost $10,000 to make–and wasn’t worth the price.

It is interesting that Jobs did not see himself as a commodity producer. He paid great attention to the details and design of Apple products and they have always been perceived as premium products. Disruption theory does not fully explain everything that Jobs achieved.

At one point, Bill Gates thought that computer hardware was a commodity business and that the real arena of competition lay in software. In 2004, Clayton Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Solution that the computer industry was switching to a modular, open architecture approach and that Apple was being disrupted. Again in 2006, he predicted that Apple would fail. And yet Apple never has been disrupted.

Christensen discusses this aberration in a recent article:

But there has always been one company that doesn’t follow that pattern. At some point in my class every year, a student raises his or her hand and asks: “What about Apple? Aren’t they a high-end, upmarket player? Why haven’t they been disrupted?

It’s a great question. Despite being perceived as a premium, high-end player, Apple under Jobs’ leadership has not simply managed to avoid being disrupted by others, it has disrupted entire industries — many of them. Even more impressive, it’s disrupting itself.

According to Christensen, Apple has avoided disruption because “profitability isn’t at the centre of every decision Apple makes. Apple’s focus is on making truly great products.” As examples of this thinking, he points to Apple’s decision to move from selling $2,000 computers to the much cheaper iPod as well as the iPad’s potential to disrupt the Mac business. Christensen also says that Jobs’ instinct was always to focus on the job that the customer was trying to do.

What are the lessons in disruption that the legal industry can learn from Steve Jobs?

First, it’s all about execution. The fact that you have come up with a disruptive business model is in itself no guarantee of success. A successfully executed disruption is far removed from its starting point as a half-formed idea.

As Businessweek put it, “Jobs’s real genius was seizing upon existing concepts, simplifying and perfecting them, and then putting them forward at exactly the right moment.”

When Apple casually mentioned in the product launch for the iPhone 4C that it had a new product for greeting cards, shares of greeting card companies tumbled. People knew that, if anyone could execute a disruption of the greeting card market, Apple could.

Second, you have to move as far away from the old paradigm as possible and build on something new. For example, unlike previous tablets, the iPad was not a stripped-down version of the personal computer. Instead, it was a product of evolution. The iPod evolved into the iPhone, which in turn evolved into the iPad. A former senior director of marketing at Apple said that “the real insight was not shrinking the Mac but growing the iPhone.” As the product evolved, the number of business models that were being disrupted continued to grow.

Building something new does not involve doing market research with your existing customers. Jobs was quoted to say, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” This echoes an old quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I’ll leave you with my favorite Steve Jobs quote, one that I believe captures the essence of both the man and of disruption: “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

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