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Microsoft’s Surface and Disruptive Innovation!

October 27, 2012 4 comments

There is an old video with Bill Gates talking about Microsoft and Windows version 3, looking at multimedia, pen computing and an early tablet computer. Circa 1991! The technology shown in the video was forward thinking. Today we take it for granted. This was a time pre-web when only businesses had computers. Few people had computers at home and few knew about email or the Internet.

The idea of tablet computers is not new. Both Microsoft and Apple had looked at the idea years ago, but at the time the technology was not sufficiently fast, sophisticated or useful enough to grasp the majority of consumers’ interests. Techies loved such devices. (At about this time, ago, I had a boss who had a Psion Organiser.  He loved it. Everybody else wondered what he saw in it).

That’s the issue with disruptive innovations.  It’s not just the disruption that counts. It’s the timing. The Microsoft tablet was like the Psion organiser, and even the more tablet like Apple Newton device.

Apple Newton

The idea was a great idea but the timing was too early, and the product was not able to capture the consumer mind.

It’s not the first company that comes out with a disruptive innovation. It’s the first company that captures the consumer’s share of mind – their imagination.

As another technological example, the Apple iPod was not the first mp3 player. There were a few before  (e.g. the MDiamond Rio and the MPMan player) – but they didn’t have the panache of the iPod – and so were quickly overtaken when the iPod entered the scene.

At the same time, entering too late – or basing your product on competitors is also not the way – as Microsoft’s Zune product showed.

The jury is still out on Microsoft’s iPad type product – the Surface. This, at least, is not a copy but something different. To a large degree, it’s fate will depend on Windows 8 (RT). I think the Surface has a place – and I can see it destroying the netbook and low-value laptop market, and so it will be disruptive. I don’t believe that it will damage the iPad or most Android tablets (and also not the Kindle type e-book reader). People buy these for the apps – and there are too few Windows based apps. I don’t see this changing with Windows 8 either. (Why should an apps developer spend time and money building a Windows based app when the vast majority of tablet computers & smart phones are Android or Apple iOS?)

So who will buy the Surface. Techies – obviously! However businesses that currently equip sales people with netbooks or low-price laptops will also go for it as it is lighter, cheaper and trendier while offering the same or greater utility than the netbooks and laptops they had previously bought.

Of course time will tell. That’s what makes something truely disruptive – it’s often only after the new technology has taken over that you can say “but it’s obvious that it would succeed“. If this wasn’t the case – we’d all be flying across the Atlantic on another seemingly disruptive technology that failed to spread even though it provided utility, speed and worked. The supersonic Concorde aircraft never really took off, even though British Airways claimed it was profitable. Only British Airways and Air France flew Concordes. No other airline purchased the aircraft and the Concorde crash in Paris in 2000 effectively sealed its fate.

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The importance of lateral thinking!

February 9, 2007 Leave a comment
A story is told about a supermarket that was having problems with gangs meeting in its car park after the supermarket had shut for the night – trading drugs, fighting and generally making a mess and nuisance.

The supermarket tried various conventional solutions to solve the problem: fences, increased security, and the like. Nothing worked long-term and, moreover, they were all expensive. Then somebody thought that perhaps a different approach might work.

The gangs were all trying to look cool, and the supermarket car-park had gained a reputation as a cool place to hang out at night. So what did the supermarket do? They thought about what could make the car park an uncool place to be, and started up a loud-speaker system piping the music of Mantovani over the parking spaces. Quickly the problem disappeared – as what kind of “cool” 16-18 year old wants to be associated with visiting a location that plays the kind of “easy listening” music beloved by their grandparents!

I teach a weekly diploma course at Thames Valley University, as part of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing‘s Marketing Research & Information module. One of the joys of teaching is that you often learn a lot from your students. Last week was no exception, and provides another great example of lateral thinking – combined with a crucial awareness of the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction while still making money!

One of my students had spent some time working as a hospitality manager in a Greek hotel. He was working the night shift, when a package group of 15 tourists arrived at the hotel. They’d just landed, and the time was 3.00am. All were tired, having had a delayed flight, and all were looking forward to the rooms that they’d paid for. Except because they hadn’t turned up, they had been treated as no-shows, and their rooms had been sold on.

Overbooking is a not-infrequent problem faced by hotels. Normally the way round is to find another equivalent hotel, and transfer the overbooked guests there. Nobody is particularly happy about the arrangement.

  • The guests are unhappy as they had been expecting hotel A and got hotel B – and have to move on, when they were looking forward to resting from their journey.
  • The hotel is unhappy as the replacement hotel needs to be as good, if not better than the original. This means that the hotel has to pay for its mistake – financially, and if the replacement hotel is not better, in good will and reputation as well, which can be even more important.
At 3.00am, with tired and irritable visitors desperate to sleep, the problem is even worse. You have to phone around your competitor hotels in the area – speaking to the night staff – to find a replacement. Often the other neighborhood hotels will also be full, meaning that the group will have to be split up – guaranteed to cause problems. Furthermore, you are likely to have to book people in lower quality hotels. You will also need to arrange several taxis to transfer people to the replacements. All told, you have a PROBLEM!

Christos found another way.

The locality ran regular cruises to the Greek island of Santorini – which necessitated an early morning start, and a couple of nights on the island.

Santorini is one of those magical islands that, once visited, you never forget. It offers all that is best of the Greek islands – white washed villages, great beaches and views, fun restaurants, archaeological sites, monasteries and churches. However this is not all – it also has a volcano in the middle of the archipelago, with regular trips to see its caldera. This volcano has been attributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, and even the cause of the plagues that the Biblical book of Exodus mentions as having led to the release of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian servitude (so, for example, the plague of darkness resulted from a cloud of ash that fell from the volcano). This eruption, 3500 years ago, was undoubtedly one of the largest ever volcanic eruptions during human history – much bigger than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The island has even been linked to the legend of Atlantis.

Christos knew that there were always places on this trip. He also knew that the costs of the trip, including the island hotel costs, would be considerably less than what would need to be paid to competitors to find beds for the group so early in the morning, as well as the less tangible costs in lost goodwill and so on. Accommodation on Santorini was much more basic and low cost – but the surroundings compensated for this.

Rather than apologizing to the group, and then getting on the phone to search for replacement hotels at 3.00am – a depressing and tedious task – he welcomed the group and said that they were really lucky. They were the hotel’s 1000th tour group and as such had qualified for a superb prize – a free trip to Santorini to start their holiday with a bang. The tour bus that would be taking them to the boat would be arriving shortly so there was no point in checking them in. They’d check back into the hotel in 2 days time, after their mini-cruise.

The tourist group may have been tired. But tiredness evaporates in such circumstances, and instead of an unhappy and probably angry crowd, you now had customer satisfaction par excellence. Instead of a short-night’s sleep and then a day recuperating by the pool, this group had been chosen to visit one of the highlights of any trip to Greece – for free. The tour group were overjoyed at their lucky break.

Next morning, the day-shift manager queried why the hotel was paying for 15 tourists to go on the Santorini trip. This was normally seen as a profit center by the hotel – as the margins were considerable. Christos explained the situation: how, instead of paying out to competitor hotels to accommodate the overbooked tourists, the hotel had covered its costs by just diverting the payments already made to the tour. Quickly the wisdom of the decision was realized, and it is now part of the hotel operating manual.

More importantly – this second story shows some of the skills all great marketers need:

  1. Ability to be able to think quickly, laterally and if needed, sidestep conventions and rules;
  2. Awareness of the importance of customer satisfaction: a happy customer leads to a strong reputation, and repeat purchase;
  3. Awareness of the importance of profit and that customer satisfaction needs to be balanced by an ability to make money.
Successful marketing is not all about reading the text books. Generally it is about solving everyday problems using innovative approaches. Many of these require skills in lateral thinking. Such solutions often are low-cost or save money, and build reputation at the same time. There are many examples of how lateral thought has been used to create opportunities or limit threats to the business. These two stories illustrate two different ways problems were solved through lateral thinking.
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