Disruptive technology half a century ago ~ Sony vs. RCA

There is a class of technological changes where almost always the new entrant – with far fewer resources and with no track record – topple existing industry giants. This special class of technological changes, paradoxically, does not have to be sophisticated or even radical.

Take transistor television as an example. When RCA first discovered transistor technology, the company was already the market leader in colour televisions produced with vacuum tubes. The company naturally saw little use for transistors beyond a mere technological curiosity and decided to license it to a little-known Japanese firm called Sony.

Sony, of course, could not build a TV out of transistors, but it did manage to produce the first transistor radio. The sound quality was awful, but the radio was affordable for teenagers, who were delighted by the freedom to listen to rock music away from the complaints of their parents. Transistor radios took off. Still, the profit margins were so low that RCA had no reason to invest further. RCA was busy making serious money and investing every R&D dollar on improving vacuum tube colour TV.

Sony, meanwhile, was looking for the next big thing. It launched a portable, low-end, black and white TV targeting low-income individuals at a rock bottom price. Called the “Tummy Television,” it was tiny enough to perch on one’s belly — an antithesis of RCA’s centrepiece that graced middle-class living rooms. Why would RCA invest in transistors to make an inferior television for a less attractive market? It did not.

The real trouble began when Sony finally pushed the transistor’s performance to allow it to produce colour TVs based entirely on the new technology. Overnight, RCA found itself trying to catch up on a technology that it had ignored for the past three decades, which it had ironically pioneered and licensed out. This type of technology – inferior at first but immensely useful later – was disruptive, a term that has since been immortalized in the business lexicon of executives, consultants, and academics.

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