Are you the calculator? Or the slide rule?


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If you held the original patent on the modern slide rule (first introduced by a French artillery lieutenant in 1859), for more than 110 years you had a license to print money.

Over the years, the slide rule got simpler, more colorful, slimmer and even more specialized. In the 1930s, for example, the revolutionary E6B model was released–a circular slide rule created specifically for airline pilots. In 1952, the Swiss watch company Breitling took the E6B a leap further by embedding a circular slide rule into a pilot’s wrist watch.

The Texas Instruments TI-30, circa 1976

The Texas Instruments TI-30, circa 1976

More than 100 years of iterations, based on the same basic technology.

Then the ceiling caved in. In 1976, Texas Instruments released the TI-30–a $25 scientific calculator that rendered 100 years of slide rule technology obsolete.

Okay, so enough with the slide rule history lesson already. What this story really demonstrates is how most “innovation” comes in the form of incremental improvements. And to the outside observer, those incremental improvements were just what was called for. The world didn’t need (and wasn’t looking for) a new technology to replace the slide rule for calculating trig equations or logarithms. But when the pocket calculator came along (which was more or less a “repurposing” of off-the-shelf technologies that made the transistor radio possible), well, 100 years of “new and improved” slide rules weren’t worth the wood they were made of.

Such is the dynamic of “disruptive technologies.” They seemingly come out of nowhere, but are mostly just a reimagining of existing technologies, harnessed for a specific new purpose.

Disruptive technologies have been with us for a long time. Flushing toilets, electric lighting, frozen entrees, the iPod. These are a few not-so-distant examples. Of late, it seems every time your pick up the paper (though today it’s most likely a tablet), you’ll read about yet another long-standing technology that’s been banished to the history books. Be it record stores, travel agencies, film cameras or “snail mail.”

The photo to the right gives us a snapshot of how personal technologies have evolved in just the last two decades.

ABOVE: 1993 Technology BELOW: Same Technology 2013

ABOVE: 1993 Technology BELOW: Same Technology 2013

With “disruptive” technologies now coming at us faster and faster, what can industry do to make sure they’re not on the same track as the slide rule? A few things come to mind:

  1. Develop a “flanking strategy.” Just because you own 90% of the market doesn’t mean you always will. No matter your market share, you are potentially one technological advance away from being out of business. So rather than stay “fat and happy” with your situation, invest 10% of your profits towards a flanking strategy. Call it your “what if” fund. Create a division whose only job is to look at new technologies in other categories and ask “what if we could harness them in our category.” Xerox did this in the 1960s, and ended up patenting many of the technologies that are now commonplace in our personal computers. Tech companies live-and-die by flanking strategies. They are under continual pressure to innovate or die. Borrow some of this imperative for your category.
  2. Whatever you do, continually add value for your customers. Some breakthroughs are of the truly mundane variety. It’s just that no one had applied them to certain industries before. Southwest did it when they understood they were in the hospitality business as much as they were in the travel business. So they went all-in on recruiting the friendliest people, training them, and giving them the freedom to create great experiences for their customers. This at a time when most carriers saw themselves as “ways to get from point-A to point-B.”
  3. Understand your customers’ pain points. Actually go out and “live in your customer’s shoes” to see what she sees, experience things the way she does. You’ll find out rather quickly that your offerings are a mere blip in her existence, and that there are things you may be able to do to make her life easier elsewhere. For example, understanding how important the commodity of “time” is to modern families, a “60 minute guarantee” or something similar in a category that might not seem time-sensitive could be worth testing.

One thing is for sure. Technology is going to be with us, and it’s going to change change things quickly. By staying as knowledgeable about your customers, and being as relevant as possible for them, you’ll keep yourself on the “calculator” track.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mickey Lonchar
Mickey Lonchar has spent the better part of two decades creating award-winning advertising with agencies up and down the West Coast, Mickey currently holds the position of creative director with Quisenberry Marketing & Design, a full-service advertising and interactive shop with offices in Spokane and Seattle, Wash.


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