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    2.3 Disruptive technologies

    Clayton Christensen's book (1997) has become a modern classic. It helps explain the failure of successful organizations, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, to adopt new technologies. The example of the Britannica, cited in Odlyzko ( 1995, 1999), is very instructive. It was and remains the most scholarly of the English-language encyclopedias. However, it could not cope with the challenges posed first by inexpensive CD-ROM encyclopedias, and more recently by the Web.

    What Christensen calls disruptive technologies tend to have three important characteristics:

    • they initially underperform established products
    • they enable new applications for new customers
    • their performance improves rapidly

    Electronic publishing has these characteristics. Little material was available initially, screen resolution was poor, printers were not widely available and expensive, and so on. However, online material was easy to locate and access, and could provide novel features, such as the constant updating of the genome database. Moreover, costs, quality, and availability have all been improving rapidly.[6] That is why direct comparisons of traditional journals or libraries with electronic collections are not directly relevant. For example, the 1998 paper by Stevens-Rayburn and Bouton is effective in demonstrating that the Web at that time could not substitute for a regular library. It still can't, even in 2000. However, that is not the relevant question.

    The mainframe was not dethroned by the PC directly. The PC could not replace the big machines in areas such as payroll processing. The computing power of the mainframes sold each year is still increasing, and has been increasing all along, even when IBM was going through its traumatic downsizing in the early 1990s. It's just that the PC market has been growing much faster. The mainframe has been consigned to a small niche, and the revenues from that niche have been declining. This is a useful analogy to keep in mind. Traditional journals and libraries are still playing a vital role, but, to quote from Odlyzko (1997b), "... journals are not where the interesting action is." The real issue, to quote Stevens-Rayburn and Bouton (1998), is that "in this new electronic age, if it isn't on-line, for many purposes it might as well not exist." Further, even if it is online, it might not matter if it is not easy to access or is not timely.