I asked a question to myself: "Why has Google been incredibly successful in defending and growing its core as well as introducing non-core disruptive innovations?". To answer my own question I ran down Google's innovation strategy through Clayton Christensen's concepts and framework as described in his book "Seeing What's Next". Here is the analysis:
Google's latest disruptive innovation is the introduction of free GPS on the Android phone. This has grave implications for Garmin. To put this innovation in the context it is a "sword and shield" style entrant strategy to beat an incumbent by serving the "overshot customers". The overshot customers are the ones who would stop paying for further improvements in performance that historically had merited attractive price premium. Google used its asymmetric skills and motivation - Android OS, mapping data, and no direct revenue expectations - as a shield to enter into the "GPS Market" to serve these overshot customers. Google later turned its shield into a "sword" strategy by disinteremediating the map providers and incentivizing the carriers with a revenue-share agreement.
On the other hand Google's core search technology and GMail are a couple of examples of "incremental to radical" sustaining innovations where Google went after the "undershot customers". The undershot customers are the ones who consume a product but are frustrated with its limitations and are willingly to switch if a better solution exists. The search engines and the web-based email solutions existed before Google introduced its own solutions. GMail delighted the users who were frustrated with their limited email quota and the search engine used better indexing and relevancy algorithms to improve the search experience. I find it remarkable that Google does not appear to be distracted by the competitors such as Microsoft who is targeting Google's core with Bing. Google continued a slow and steady investment into its sustainable innovation to maintain the revenue stream out of its core business. These investments include the next generation search platform Caffeine, social search, profiles, GMail labs etc.
Where most of the companies inevitably fail Google succeeded by spending (a lot of) money on lower-end disruptive innovations against "cramming" their sustaining innovation. Google even adopted this strategy internally to deal with the dilemma between its sustaining and disruptive innovations. One would think that the natural starting point for Google Wave would be the GMail team but it's not true. In fact my friends who work for Google tell me that the GMail team was shocked and surprised when they found out that some other team built Google Wave. Adding wave-like functionality in the email would have been cramming the sustaining innovation but innovating outside of email has potential to serve a variety of undershot and overshot customers in unexpected ways. This was indeed a clever strategy.
So, what's next?
If I were AT&T I would pay very close attention to Google's every single move. Let's just cover the obvious numbers. The number of smartphone units sold this year surpassed the number of laptops sold and the smartphone revenue is expected to surpass the laptop revenue in 2012. Comcast grew their phone subscribers eight-fold with the current number exceeding 7 million. Google Voice has over 1.4 million users of which 570,000 use it seven days a week. Even though Google does not like its phone bill Google seems to be committed to make Google Voice work. This could allow Google to serve a new class of overshot customers that has a little or no need of land line, desire to stay always-connected, and hungry for realtime content and conversations. Time after time Google has shown that it can disintermediate players along its value chain. It happened to NavTeq and Tele Atlas and it is happening to other players with Google Power Meter and Chrome.
Many people argue that Chrome OS is more disruptive. I beg to differ. I believe that Chrome OS does not have near term disruption trajectory. Being wary of hindsight bias, I would go back to the disruptive innovation theory and argue that Chrome OS is designed for the undershot customers that are frustrated with other market solutions at the same level. For the vast majority of the customers it does not matter. If Google does have a grand business plan around Chrome OS it certainly will take a lot of time, resources, and money before they see any traction. I see the telco disruption happening much sooner since it serves the overshot customers. I won't be surprised if Google puts a final nail in telco's coffin and redefines the telephony.