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Evolutionary Innovation vs. the pursuit of Disruptive Innovation

Evolutionary Innovation vs. the pursuit of Disruptive Innovation
Karthik Thayumanasamy - Business Analyst | January 29, 2013

Back in 2007 when the iPhone was launched, it was a revolutionary innovation. The iPhone disrupted the entire mobile industry. Revolutionary products very often tend to have such an impact; they disrupt the market, suddenly market leaders become irrelevant, the market dynamics change, and there is a huge halo effect on that company and everything they do thereafter.

So why should organizations focus on evolutionary innovation rather than making revolutionary disruptive products?

To begin with, revolutionary innovations are rare.  Steve Jobs said: “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. It's very fortunate if you can work on just one of these in your career.”

Often while companies are focusing every bit of their resources to get a great new product to market, the market conditions change, the demand for the product might disappear, the consumers might change, or a competitor might bring their product to market first, or product might be substituted entirely with some other offering.

For these reasons, it makes more sense for companies to get a product to market quickly and evolve them continuously. To illustrate this point, let us look at one of Google’s greatest success stories.

The world of desktop browsers

The desktop browser market is a very competitive space where Microsoft IE controls a large portion of the market share. In late 2008, Google entered this market, and within a span of 3 - 4 years, Chrome has become the second most popular browser and is very close from becoming the market leader. (Sources: StatCounter)

Evolutionary Innovation vs. The pursuit of Disruptive Innovation

What is the reason behind Google Chrome's success?

Google was able to grab the initial attention of the users because of

  • Google Brand - Google is a synonym for the web

  • Its Design Philosophy - Chrome had a simple and  minimalist UI

But the primary reason for Chrome's quick growth and sustained momentum has nothing to do with the product itself, but with the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) approach Google adopted.

Google's SDLC approach: Shorter development life cycle and evolutionary innovation

In the world of browsers prior to Chrome, browser release cycles were typical of any major software product - in most cases, a new release every couple of years, and at best a new release a year.

Contrastingly, Google’s goal is to offer a new release every six weeks; Chrome went from version 1.0 to 10 in three years while Internet Explorer went from version 6 to 7 in five years.

Below are two tables comparing the major Chrome releases with the rest of the Browser releases:

Ttwo tables comparing the major Chrome releases with the rest of the Browser releases
(Source: Wikipedia)

These are not just increasing version numbers, these are major feature additions. Because of their quicker release cycles, Google was 1st to market with several features:

Major feature additions to Google Chrome

  • Chrome was the 1st browser to support HTML 5

  • 1st to support Bookmarks sync

  • 1st to support native Flash

  • 1st to support native PDF

  • 1st to support  passwords sync

  • 1st to support  Web apps

  • 1st to support  tabs and session sync across devices

This Infographic highlights the evolution of various browsers.

Sources: complete infographic on web browsers

All updates from Google are automatically pushed to all its users, and Chrome updates in the background, always keeping it new and modern.

Google's continuous evolution approach has not just increased the version numbers, but has made them irrelevant. It has enabled Google to bring more features to the market quicker than any of its competition, and has catapulted them ahead of the competition.

For more details on Google’s SDLC approach, a presentation by a Google program manager is available here.

A brave new world of quicker release cycles

What we are seeing right now is that the continuous evolution of products has gained preference over large periodic product launches.

Now other big companies are also following in the footsteps of Google. Mozilla has adopted this shorter SDLC approach for its Firefox browser. Apple has moved to an annual release cycle for its OSX and IOS platforms, and perhaps the biggest change is from Microsoft – MS office will be moving from a major release every 3-4 years to frequent updates with its new subscription model. With the Windows family of products, Microsoft is following the same approach. Windows 8 was set for release in Oct 2012 with another major update planned for 2013.

Iterative release cycles help the product stay relevant to the customer. It gives the organization an opportunity to evolve the product in close alignment to customer preferences and technological advancements. Moreover, iterative product development is less risky, it provides more control and perhaps can be equally pathbreaking as revolutionary products.

What are your thoughts on this? Should product companies focus on getting the product to market quickly and evolve them continuously, or should they pursue the path of creating huge revolutionary products to disrupt the market?Read more about HCL's innovations here.

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