Technological transitions are challenging, particularly for companies in mature industries. Incumbents are frequently blindsided by new technologies, thereby missing opportunities to enter emerging markets early. While some established companies become early adopters of new technologies, the authors argue that they typically lack the vision and the commitment to become leaders. Too often, they cling to the familiar, developing "hybrid" products that combine elements of the old and the new. This puts even the best incumbent companies in a weak position when the market finally embraces the new technology, something the authors call the "hybrid trap."
This article takes a close look at the auto industry's transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs) and compares it to precedents in other industries. Several incumbent automakers, such as General Motors Co. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd., entered the EV market early, but they backed away from these projects in favor of continued emphasis on established engine technology. Gradually, most of them focused on hybrid cars that combined old and new technologies. This opened the door to new competitors, notably Tesla Inc., which focused solely on the EV technology. By mid-2017, nearly every old-line engine producer was playing catch-up on EV technology, working to release new electric models in the next two to five years.
Although it is too early to know if Tesla will be successful in the long run, the Tesla example, in the authors' view, points to a fundamental weakness in how incumbents respond to industry transformations. In the 1960s, U.S. electronics companies responded to the introduction of Japanese transistor radios by developing products that blended transistor technology with traditional vacuum tubes. In
the early 1990s, Kodak Ltd. tried to sell a "film-based digital imaging" product, which merged film photography and digital technology. And a decade ago, BlackBerry Ltd. tried to respond to the challenge of the iPhone by releasing a phone that had both a touchscreen display (like the iPhone) and a traditional keyboard (like earlier BlackBerry phones).
The answer for incumbents, the authors write, isn't to walk away from products based on the old technology and jump headlong into the new. But they need to take precautions so that the company's legacy operations don't hamper their ability to pursue new technology. New technologies can open opportunities that extend well beyond the scope of legacy products. But such opportunities can be accessed only by companies that are willing to view the world through the lens of the new technology.