The Innovator’s Dilemma, Facebook, and the Oculus Acquisition

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil describes the life cycle of a technology:

We can identify seven distinct stages in the life cycle of a technology.

1. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing, even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

2. The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, similar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually a measure of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

3. The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (who may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the invention itself. Many tinkerers had constructed finely handtuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

4. The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders.

5. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

6. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor.

7. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter).

Fred Wilson argues in The Search For The Next Platform that Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is “Zuck and his team looking up and saying “what’s next?””. Viewed through the lens of Kurzweil’s seven stages, Facebook is at stage 4 (maturity) and Oculus is the potentially disruptive upstart in stage 5. It might seem far-fetched now, but what if Oculus’s virtual reality platform did eventually evolve into a communication platform? Could it threaten Facebook’s current dominance? Maybe. The acquisition then can be seen as part Facebook’s attempt to beat the Innovator’s Dilemma, the tendency of mature companies to lose out to startups by focusing too much on satisfying existing customers and not enough on disruptive new technologies.

Will Facebook succeed and still be relevant in 5-10-20+ years or more? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to see how things play out. :)

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