The book Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen discusses how initially inferior technologies may eventually displace existing technologies. Christensen calls these technologies “disruptive technologies”. Christensen’s favourite example is hard drives for computers in which market the incumbent almost never made the leap to the next level of miniaturisation successfully. It was not because they lacked the technical expertise but because they were “stuck” with a large and profitable base of existing customers for whom the new technology wasn’t good enough to start with.
As new types of customers with initially lower and somewhat different requirements emerged, so did new suppliers jumping on the new technology curve. The new technology developed faster than the old and eventually got good enough for the “old” customers of the “old” suppliers. This was the way hydraulic excavators replaced mechanical ones and the way mini-mills took over market after market in the steel industry, both having started as low-quality niche products for niche markets. One key reason for why this happens is that the organisations, the management structures and the incentive systems of the old players can’t handle new, small and initially unprofitable customers at the same time as existing, large and profitable customers. Small, new players can much easier move up-market.
Open source software has all the signs of a disruptive technology. It started as a technology for geeks that knew all the Linux terminal commands and didn’t mind (actually rather enjoyed) hacking away for a few hours to get their media player or file sharing to work. Open source software isn’t yet quite mature enough to outright replace its commercial alternatives (see other posts around here) but it’s very close. The casual computer user who for instance wants an inexpensive computer for email, web access, Skype, spread sheet work and some word processing can today get a “netbook” such as the Asus Eee that (at least in Sweden) comes with the Xandros Linux distribution with a host of pre-installed software.
I have been running Ubuntu on my private laptop while I run Windows XP on my work laptop. I today dare to assert that my productivity is exactly the same with both machines. There is no part of my work that I can do faster or better on the Windows machine. Should i today start a company, i would most likely standardise on the Linux platform and save a buck. (I still might let my sales guys use Windows though…). The few problems I have left are in the areas that I have been writing about: hibernation and sleep, media playback and editing (e.g. AVCHD) and synchronisation with my mobile phone (Funambol looks like a great concept but wasn’t properly configured for my phone).
For everything else, the Ubuntu machine works perfectly. And as I’ve stated before, the problems above are not unique to the Linux platform but they are still a little less frequent on Windows.