When Google announced in 2012 that they were bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, my father called me and said he was interested. As an information technologist, I was excited. I told the “old man” that Google Fiber was going to change everything. Last month, Google Fiber finally came to my parents' neighborhood, and I made the six-hour drive to visit the house I grew up in.
After watching my parents interact with Google Fiber, I confirmed not only that Google Fiber was a game changer, but I also discovered something I hadn't expected: in a world where technology companies prefer to deliver shock and awe, Google made every effort to deliver no surprises to homeowners. On the surface, my parents weren't doing anything different than they had before Google brought their tech to town. This ultimate game changing disruptive technology could not be more non-disruptive to the families who are about to consume it.
Consumers Don't Want "Interruptive" Technology
As most tech geeks do, my interests were focused on the specifications and capability of Google Fiber. For instance, I knew that Google Fiber would bring my parents an Internet connection of One Gbps - that's roughly 200 times greater than what they were getting through Time Warner Cable, give or take.
On top of that blazing speed, Google bundled in cable TV, a DVR capable of recording eight programs simultaneously with two terabytes of storage, a Nexus 7 tablet, plus a terabyte of storage in the cloud.
Before I visited my parents, I envisioned this equipment would be housed in some sort of technology shrine (that's what I would have done). Instead, I found most of the Google Fiber equipment plopped on the shelf, right below the TV. That's right, the latest breakthrough humankind has to offer in network communications, sitting in the exact place my folks once kept their 1980s VCR.
As long as I remember, technology has been a disruptive force in my life and in American culture. The introduction of the home computer in the 1980s, and the availability of the Internet in the 1990s were life-changing. The increased ease of communication with cell phones, smart phones, and tablets have changed our society in ways we're still trying to comprehend today. For years, technology consultants, analysts, and marketers have preached that in order for technology products to succeed they must be disruptive to catch the consumer's attention. Watching my parents use Google Fiber this past weekend quickly taught me that disruptive technology - at a consumer level - is old school.
While those of us who live and breathe technology yearn for the “next big thing,” people living outside our bubble don't focus on the technology. For my parents, broadband speeds of One Gbps was a “nice” feature but what excited them more was the switch from Cable to Google Fiber provided them a cheaper Internet and TV bill. If you asked my dad what impressed him most about Google, it wasn't the technology but the customer service and Google's attention to detail. Google hadn't promised Mom and Dad a better life, but only stated that the technology would work as expected. Normal people just want technology to be part of the fabric in their daily lives, nothing less and definitely nothing more.
The Power Of Non-disruption
There has been a lot written this year about Apple no longer innovating. I'm not a fan of Apple products (overpriced in my opinion) but even I can see we all judge Apple too harshly. We demand Apple to wow us with every version of the iPhone or iPad and we cry foul despite being provided with a quality product, year after year. The problem isn't Apple, but our obsolete score card. Almost no one in the tech industry has acknowledged that the smart phone industry as a whole is no longer capable of disruptive innovation, but only incremental changes. We as technologists have allowed ourselves to get into a “rut of expectation” without acknowledging this is no longer 2010. Today, phones and tablets have lost their wow, much the same way desktop computers did for us, half a decade ago.
Years ago, we used to judge computer processors by their speed. Companies such as Intel and AMD finally got tired of the “MHz wars” and eventually began putting less emphasis on the specifications. Instead, these companies highlighted what could be accomplished with the new processors. Those who love specs hated this move, despite the fact that there wasn't really much difference between 300 MHz and 333 MHz. We chided Intel and AMD for the foolish marketing move. For ordinary consumers, the opposite was true. Without the numbers being in their faces, consumers were finally allowed to judge the strength of their PCs in more meaningful ways.
I suspect today's great tech companies no longer want their product to be judged a success based on whether it provides technology disruption. Companies understand the value of disruption in the eye of consumer is much less than the tech industry is willing to acknowledge. The moves have been subtle, but if you look closely, you will see that Apple and Google have shifted their strategy from disruption to non-disruption. I first noted this with the introduction of Siri and Google Now where they exist to assist you, not to change you. Companies that disrupt on the other hand are failing. All you have to look at is Microsoft's insistence that we don't need the Start Button in Windows 8 and the other radical desktop changes they have made. The lives of Windows users have been disrupted with Windows 8. Users are lost by not knowing whether they need to click a mouse, punch a keyboard, or swipe their screen to get them where they need to go. Non-disruption is simply more alluring to the consumer than disruption.
This year, Google embraced the power of non-disruption in a big way. Google differentiated it's new Moto X as a phone capable of doing more by being seen less and being heard less. For the most part, this was only done through incremental changes to Android's notification system. The hardcore tech folks decried the lesser hardware specs but I think they missed what Google didn't...the rules for how we judge a product have changed.
Do you get it?
I'm a firm believer that the next disruptive innovation will be in the form of mainstreaming wearable computers and other wearable technology. I don't think any company is quite there yet but it would be foolish to not recognize they are getting close. We've been seeing movement in wearable gear in the form of such products as Google Glass and Pebble Smartwatches. I've seen plenty of converted iPod Nano watches in the wild to know there is a market here. Consumers are tired of lugging their smartphones around in their pockets or dropping them just as they step on the elevator. Once the right company with the right design comes along, this new market will take off just as fast as when Apple introduced the first iPad.
But here is the kicker, while something like a smartwatch or smart glasses is disruptive innovation it's success as a product is fully dependent on it being non-disruptive technology. No one in their right mind wants to talk to someone that looks like a half finished Borg character out of Star Trek. No one wants to distract the boss by carrying Big Ben around on their wrist. Technology is more powerful when you don't know it's there. Disruptive technology is no longer cool because non-disruption is the new black. If indeed what I am saying is true, the implications for industries that have relied on disruption to make a buck is staggering.
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