What is disruptive technology? - Definition from WhatIs.com


disruptive technology

Part of the Computing fundamentals glossary:

A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.  

Here are a few examples of disruptive technologies: 

  • The personal computer (PC) displaced the typewriter and forever changed the way we work and communicate.
  • The Windows operating system's combination of affordability and a user-friendly interface was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities. 
  • Email transformed the way we communicating, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries. 
  • Cell phones made it possible for people to call us anywhere and disrupted the telecom industry.
  • The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and made it possible for people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops. 
  • Smartphones largely replaced cell phones and PDAs and, because of the available apps, also disrupted: pocket cameras, MP3 players, calculators and GPS devices, among many other possibilities. For some mobile users, smartphones often replace laptops. Others prefer a tablet.
  • Cloud computing has been a hugely disruptive technology in the business world, displacing many resources that would conventionally have been located in-house or provided as a traditionally hosted service. 
  • Social networking has had a major impact on the way we communicate and -- especially for personal use -- disrupting telephone, email, instant messaging and event planning. 

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology. In his 1997 best-selling book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," Christensen separates new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience, and may not yet have a proven practical application. (Such was the case with Alexander Graham Bell's "electrical speech machine," which we now call the telephone.) 

In his book, Christensen points out that large corporations are designed to work with sustaining technologies. They excel at knowing their market, staying close to their customers, and having a mechanism in place to develop existing technology. Conversely, they have trouble capitalizing on the potential efficiencies, cost-savings, or new marketing opportunities created by low-margin disruptive technologies. Using real-world examples to illustrate his point, Christensen demonstrates how it is not unusual for a big corporation to dismiss the value of a disruptive technology because it does not reinforce current company goals, only to be blindsided as the technology matures, gains a larger audience and market share and threatens the status quo.

See also:  disruptive innovation, digital disruption, IT innovation, business innovation, IT transformation

This was last updated in July 2014
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

Related Terms


  • photonics

    - Photonics is an area of study that involves the use of radiant energy (such as light), whose fundamental element is the photon. (WhatIs.com)

  • laser

    - A laser is a coherent and focused beam of photons; coherent, in this context, means that it is all one wavelength, unlike ordinary light which showers on us in many wavelengths. The acronym laser s... (WhatIs.com)

  • cyberextortion

    - Cyberextortion is a crime involving an attack or threat of attack against an enterprise, coupled with a demand for money to avert or stop the attack. (SearchSecurity.com)


  • Computing fundamentals

    - Terms related to computer fundamentals, including computer hardware definitions and words and phrases about software, operating systems, peripherals and troubleshooting.

  • Internet applications

    - This WhatIs.com glossary contains terms related to Internet applications, including definitions about Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery models and words and phrases about web sites, e-commerce ...

Ask a Question. Find an Answer.Powered by ITKnowledgeExchange.com

Ask An IT Question

Get answers from your peers on your most technical challenges

Ask Question

Tech TalkComment



    Contribute to the conversation

    All fields are required. Comments will appear at the bottom of the article.