Why the father of disruption theory is worried about Apple

“About 40 minutes into the interview with Clay Christensen that Asymco‘s Horace Dediu posted Wednesday on his Critical Path podcast, Dediu brings the conversation around to Apple,” Philip Elmer-DeWitt reports for Fortune.

“Christensen, who was Dediu’s mentor at Harvard Business School, is best known as the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma — a book that ‘deeply influenced’ Steve Jobs, according to his biographer,” P.E.D. reports. “It describes how great companies that seem to be doing all the right things — listening to their customers, increasing productivity, using technology to steadily improve their products — almost invariably get overtaken by new, less profitable technologies that for very good business reasons the established leaders don’t pursue until it’s too late.”

P.E.D. reports, “Christensen, it turns out, has two concerns about Apple: 1. That it’s too much like Sony under Akia Morita… [and] 2.That Apple’s integrated product lines are vulnerable to newcomers.”

More info and link to Deidu’s Critical Path podcast, in the full article here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Brawndo Drinker” for the heads up.]


  1. To suggest tha Apple is in some kind of jeopardy is to suggest that Steve Jobs has failed to create a lasting company. This was one of his high priority goals.

    I will bet on Steve.

    1. No one can foresee all possible futures, and portable electronics technology continues to advance at a rapid pace. But I believe that SJ did the best job possible to implement a solid infrastructure and forward plan for Apple over the next five and ten years. It is up to the Apple team to implement that plan and stay true to the vision.

      There is no doubt that some exclusive “disruptive” technology could be developed that would adversely impacts Apple’s leadership in mobile electronics. But there are a limited number of avenues from which such a technology could emerge, and the authors fail to indicate what technologies might represent a disruptive breakthrough in this context.

      As demonstrated by the success of the iPhone and the iPad, the most critical factor in mobile devices is the user interface – input and output. Compared to the Blackberries and Windows phones available in the mid-2000s, Apple chose to use larger touchscreen displays and minimize the physical buttons on their portable devices. That opened up a lot of display real estate for apps, photos, and video, as well as a more flexible way of interacting with iOS devices. Those design decisions turned out to be wildly successful, so the industry attempted to duplicate that approach with some weak attempts at differentiation (bigger and bigger displays, for example). Then Apple implemented the Siri advanced voice interface on the iPhone 4S, spawning another round of imitation. In parallel, Apple has filed several patents on haptic feedback displays and 3-D interfaces that could further evolve the iOS user interface.

      Those who avidly follow technology have heard of flexible/deployable displays, retinal projection devices to generate HUD and virtual displays, direct brain interfaces…the list goes on. In my opinion, a competitor to Apple will have to develop a UI breakthrough that cannot be easily duplicated in order to dethrone iOS. An Apple competitor might make that leap, but it seems far more likely to me that Apple will make that disruptive UI breakthrough, either internally or through a partnership with a similarly enlightened tech company.

  2. It’s illogical and even totally ridiculous to compare Apple with Sony: two vastly different cultures; two vastly different points in time, with the respective vastly different cultural, technological, and societal factors impacting the companies’ respective heydays. Just a bunch of meaningless psycho-babble.

    1. The only thing I remember about Sony is 50 ports and 50 adapters that I never ever used that came with every product. Also, buttons being all over the place – among other things, my ancient Discman has a bass-boost button on the bottom! The bottom! Even as a high schooler, I was like, “who designed this???”

  3. I could see a senario where Apple would fail, if someone else comes out with an outrageously disruptive technology and Apple is left out. In other words if some one out-Apples Apple. Unlikely, but remotely possible.

    1. Seems unlikely indeed. The rest of the tech industry is in “copy Apple” mode. You can’t “out-Apple” Apple when you are copying Apple. Apple’s competition is in a race to see who can copy Apple the fastest; the prize (especially in terms of profit) is Apple’s leftovers.

      The current biggest threat to Apple is supposedly from the Android platform. But “Android” is not one entity. It is a collective of many hardware makers and one primary software developer (Google), all with differing and often conflicting agendas. Google does not make any direct profit from Android, and probably collects more ad revenue by supporting iOS. There is no way the Android platform can outmaneuver Apple.

      1. Yes to your first paragraph. This has always been one of my personal litmus tests for how Apple’s really doing every year. … everybody racing to copy Apple… Exactly spot on.

      2. You can’t “out-Apple” Apple when you are copying Apple.

        Posts like this are why I want a “rep” button on this site.

        Exactly right. Apple is vulnerable to a new company that behaves like the Apple of the 2000’s. But that company is nowhere to be found. They are not in the least threatened by any existing competitor, because those competitors have shown zero competence in defining a new product category first.


  4. Ever since the beginning of Apple’s rise prominence under Steve Jobs, one wise guy after another has been predicting Apple’s demise. All I’ve got to say is: Bring on the competition! Let’s see it—the more, the merrier.

  5. Apple is the disruptive influence in the electronics world.

    Clay Cristensen is afraid that Apple will figuratively look in the mirror, see a hard charging Apple and run like hell with it’s tail between it’s legs.

    Like, that’s gonna happen.

  6. Apple would be wise to be the disrupter that impacts its own product line and ecosystem. There’s already evidence to suggest that the company is aware of this. They strayed from the script dramatically when they released the iPad at a completely unexpected $499, fully willing to compete against its own laptop computer line. It will be very interesting to see the upcoming products and ecosystems from Apple that prove they continue to be ahead of the game from a strategic perspective.

  7. As much as I admire many of Christensen’s arguments, and my entire workplace is based on many of his theories, he also for years had no idea how Apple managed to be disruptive. He could not explain their success. I recall a quote from him once about Apple being magical, in the sense that he could not at all explain their rise. He never mentioned them much in is books re: success, and instead focused on HP, Sony, etc.

    1. Wait… what? A guy who doesn’t “get” his own stuff?

      If what he said about Apple is true, then one has to wonder if this guy knows or understands anything at all about what he writes about.

      Not that it would be the first time. I’ve heard so many “experts” talk about things… only to be hoisted by their own petards at some point, that this comes as no surprise.

      Classic examples of Clarke’s Law, it appears.

  8. He’s not worried just looking for what he considers weak spots.

    I’m sure Tim Cook is too, as did Steve Jobs.

    Those that can do, all others speculate and theorize.

  9. Sony’s president did not have the lens of History that Tim Cook now has.

    Admire Christensen, but I don’t think he gave enough reasons why he is correct and this sounds more like an educated guess, short of research.

      1. Vertical integration is what made Ford the big success in the 1920’s. Henry Ford wanted to control everything from the iron ore mines that provided the steel that built the cars. It can work very, very, well. , or not depending on how good the managers are. Henry Ford was brilliant in designing cars up to a point. When a successor to the Model T was needed, he got stubborn and nearly put Ford in the dumper by wanting to retain design features that no longer fit the needs.

        But the concept of vertical integration is also partly responsible for the growth of the Japanese auto industry in the 60’s and beyond. Disclosure: I worked for Nissan Motor Corp in those days. Nissan, Toyota, Honda tend always to own a controlling interest in their component suppliers. But it tends to be a benign interest rather than a destructive one. Not always but more often than not.

        I see Apple heading that way which which, generally ,will make them more completive, not less.

  10. An open system only functions as a test bed to find out what works, at which point you have to standardize on that thing which works. Then the successful standardized elements become part of a closed system, which is the only thing that is marketable. If, at that point, it can’t change to meet no conditions, it dies. Could happen to Apple but unlikely.

    The ones who choose not to get on board when something works well enough to become a standard keep messing around with Linux in their basements and waste all their time arguing with each other over the latest GHYOP0jhp0y8965 version 23778909.1 of their “operating system”. (uh, I made those version numbers up, no need for LInux geeks to think you missed some new great world-changing distro)

  11. “open systems” are like automobile kit cars. You buy a whole bunch of boxes of parts, assemble them with help from the local hardware store, and 1 out of a 1000 actually end up being driven. 1 out of 10,000 is a beautiful work of art.
    The rest…….still in their boxes in the garage.

  12. Apple’s secret to success is quite simple- they only have one competitor: themselves. Should they ever stop competing with themselves, they will most certainly be overtaken. But as long they’re constantly challenging themselves to innovate, Apple has nothing to worry about…

    1. To say that Apple has no competitor is to turn a blind eye.

      1. iTunes Movie Store: Netflix and the movie producers themselves.
      2. peripherals: keyboards , mice , printers, scanners, routers.
      4. cloud
      5. every developer in the App Store

      The competitors may be weak, but they are there.

      The consumers wallet is not infinite. If any other company takes my money, then it does not go to Apple. The competition is for the buyer’s money and making good products that people are willing to buy. Apple has shown they don’t want to make good products to round out their product line at a profit: Xserve, printers. Apple would still make those if buyers bought them.

      Do you think Apple derives no inspiration from the good things that other companies bring ?

      1. “The competitors may be weak, but they are there.”

        Sounds like Apple should be quaking in their boots! You mean would-be competitors, don’t you?

        1. How about this. If the competitors are making a profit and/or have significant marketshare, they are competitors. If they are losing and have inconsequential marketshare, they are clear wannabee’s.

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