Subject: Re: Free Software vs. Disruptive Change
From: "Benjamin J. Tilly " <>
Date: Tue, 02 Jul 2002 00:26:28 +0800

Kragen Sitaker wrote:
> I apologize for the length and rough tone of this message; if I had
> more time, I'd shorten it and make it clearer that I might be wrong.
> Jonathan Shapiro asks:
> > So my question: does open source make it dramatically harder to fund
> > investment in disruptive technology (either open or proprietary)? I
> > think the answer is "yes".
> >
> > By way of illustration: the existence of a free GCC makes the investment
> > in building new compilers much harder to justify. Sun has continued only
> > because they are stubborn, and Intel only because their new compiler is
> > a sales tool for their processors -- that is, there is no profit
> > expectation in their compiler suite.
> I'm assuming that I understand what Christensen means by "disruptive
> innovation", and that by "disruptive technology" you mean what he
> means by that term.  If that's the case, you're completely wrong.

My copy of his book hasn't arrived yet.  But my understanding is that
what Christensen means by a disruptive technology is an inferior good
that enters an established market.  Being inferior, it cannot compete
directly on its merits.  However if it can find a niche that it fills
which the existing alternative does not (generally because of cost),
then after a few rounds of iterative development it can supplant the
existing technology in existing markets.  After a few rounds of this,
the existing technology is left with only a niche high-end market, if

If that is what you meant, I took Jonathan's question to be rather
different.  Instead he is thinking of a disruptive technology as one
which causes us to rethink how we work, and start doing things in a
different way entirely.

However that said, I think that your answer is correct in general
outline.  A completely new way of doing things will, pretty much by
definition, start out as much worse than the existing way of doing
things for things that the existing way is used for.  Therefore if it
will succeed, it must succeed as any disruptive technology (using
Christensen's definition) does.

> > For EROS, the problem is, in essence, that we need to do a refactoring
> > port of essentially all of the major open source applications to have a
> > viable entry. The good news is that we *can* do this because these tools
> > are open source tools. The bad news is that its cost is very very high.
> > Take the GCC situation and multiply.
> Look, are you going to market EROS as sustaining or disruptive?  If
> it's disruptive, it doesn't *have* to do everything Linux does.  Linux
> users, and Windows users too, will look at it and sneer, "You call
> that thing an operating system?  You can't even run [insert one of the
> 4000 software packages in potato] on it!"  But it will do things Linux
> and Windows can't do now and will never be able to do, and so people
> who need those things will adopt it anyway, and one by one, those 4000
> packages will get ported to it because people need them.


> Mike Linksvayer writes:
> > Many software entrepreneurs have tried to introduce disruptive
> > products into e.g., the desktop OS, office automation and database
> > markets and failed. Over and over.  With near-zero open source
> > presence in those markets.
> I can think of only seven disruptive operating systems: Unix, CP/M,
> MacOS, PalmOS, KeyKOS, FORTH, and EROS.  Most of them succeeded
> brilliantly.  All the Unix dialects, MS-DOS, Windows, NeXTStep,
> Netware, OS/2, and BeOS were simply sustaining (although some of them
> ran on disruptive *hardware*.)

If you are thinking of Christensen's definition, then there are very
definitely more.  For instance Linux qualifies.

But, you say, Linux is just a warmed-over Unix?

Doesn't matter.  No matter how derivative, Linux is disruptive.  When
it arrived it was undoubtably less capable than its alternatives (for
instance not nearly as scalable), and very definitely cheaper.  The
initial successes were in niche markets like department webservers,
fileservers, and for cheap compute clusters.  Like any good disruptive
technology, over time Linux has managed to improve fast.  It *STILL*
isn't as good as Solaris, but it has become "good enough" for a lot of
the existing market, and is eating its way up from the bottom, leaving
the existing technology (Unix) more and more relegated to the top end.

If this isn't Christensen's model for how a disruptive technology works,
then I seriously misunderstood the reviews that made me decide that I
wanted to learn more about his examples.



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