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The impact of disruptive innovation – on PCs and on Retail

January 17, 2013 11 comments

Two recent items highlight the impact of disruptive innovations on industries. The first is a presentation from the Business Insider called the The Death of PC. The second is an article looking at Amazon and mentioning its March 2012 purchase of Kiva Systems.

Since 2009, the PC market has hardly grown. In the same period, Smartphone & Tablet sales boomed. Many tasks that used to be done on PCs are now done on these newer devices: email, web-searching, social media, and more. This has had a massive impact on the traditional PC market and its suppliers such as Intel and Microsoft. Whereas Apple’s and Samsung’s share prices have grown substantially, Dell & HP have been static or fallen. The introduction of both Smartphones and Tablets illustrate how disruptive these technologies are to the traditional PC industry – although as the The Death of PC presentation shows, things are actually more complicated. This is typical for a disruptive innovation – especially in the earlier stages.

Disruptive innovations do not always kill the products and industries they replace. What they do is change them radically. Smartphones haven’t killed the camera industry. They have, however transformed it so that DSLR and higher-end / special function cameras are now the main products sold. The cheap mass-market snapshot camera has gone – who needs one, when a Smartphone does everything that they could do, and much more. Disruptive innovations also mean that companies that fail to adapt quickly enough disappear. Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is an example of this. Kodak and photography were synonymous – but the company failed to anticipate how digital camera usage would change the way people process photographs.

In the case of the PC market, so far it’s only the home PC that’s dying. The PC in the workplace is doing fine – and that’s because the type of task it is used for is different. It’s hard to work on a spreadsheet, or a complex graphic or even a long report using a Tablet and almost impossible on a Smartphone. These aren’t tasks that the home computer was used for. So Tablets haven’t changed the work PC – only the home PC market. However expectations have changed – and this has led to newer devices and cloud computing which promises to be as disruptive for the traditional hard-disk based PC and so the PC as we knew it last century is gone or going. It’s not yet dead – just changed.

Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems in another example of a disruptive innovation. Amazon itself has shown how disruptive e-commerce is to traditional retailing. The high-street and even the out-of-town retail outlets struggle to compete with Amazon on price. However they can still compete on service: if you want something on the same day, then such outlets beat Amazon, even if the price is higher. Further, Amazon’s warehouse distribution system could be copied and many of the larger retailers now offer online options. Currently both use human labour to select and package products for delivery – and this represents a significant proportion of retail costs. The Kiva Systems purchase promises to change all this. Kiva Systems manufactures robots and the software used to control them. The robots are designed for use in warehouses for accessing goods. They remove the need for a human being to go to the relevant shelf and remove a product for sending to a customer – instead a machine does this. Eventually such systems are likely to completely automate the distribution process – meaning that Amazon’s labour costs will fall dramatically.

Any retailer that still depends on human labour in their warehouses or retailing is likely to find it even harder competing with Amazon’s prices. Such retailers should start thinking now on how they could compete. Options include looking at ways of improving service or focusing on narrow niches requiring in-person expertise. Waiting and hoping that some shining knight on a white charger will come and rescue them is not an option. There will be no shining knight because, however much retailers may wish it was, true life is not a fairy story.

[After writing this post, Michel Bernaiche, Program Development Director of AurowaWDC and current Chairman of the SCIP board, pointed out this news story to me – highlighting how robots are impacting not just retailing but many other business areas – from hospitals & surgery to legal research. CBS News Video on Impact of Robotics in Industry]

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