Disruptive Technology

In their 1995 article, "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave," Harvard Business School professors Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen define two categories of new technology: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. A good example is the conventional petrol engine used in automobiles; the principle on which it works has not changed in over a hundred years, but a modern car engine is much more reliable and efficient than that of a 1908 model-T Ford. Disruptive technology, on the other hand, is a revolutionary technology that suddenly, and often unexpectedly, displaces an established technology. Take, for instance, the rapid market takeover by digital cameras at the expense of long-proven and firmly established film-photography technology. According to Bower and Christensen, disruptive technology initially often lacks refinement, appeals to a limited number of people, and may not yet have a proven practical application (the idea is further developed in Christensen's 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator's Dilemma).

Tether technology has the potential to be a disruptive technology; if it works as advertised, it could radically change spaceflight and make conventional rocket propulsion systems largely obsolete. If so, it would not be the first time in history that an experimental technology totally replaced older, much better established means of transportation.

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