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75th Anniversary of the Copy Machine, an Example of the Innovators’ Dilemma

Yesterday, NPR had a feature on the copy machine’s 75th anniversary, celebrating this technology’s impact on the workplace.

Clayton Christensen, who coined the term ‘disruptive innovation,’ often uses the copy machine as an example of the innovator’s dilemma, such as in this 1995 Harvard Business Review article, and the 2011 interview excerpted below:

For example, when Canon disrupted Xerox, [Xerox’s] most important customers operated high-speed photocopy centers, and they needed even faster, ever more fully featured machines. These little tabletop copiers (from Canon) could do three or four copies a minute. They couldn’t collate; they couldn’t enlarge or reduce or do grayscale replication. But they made it so much simpler to make photocopies that many people actually had two copiers for a while. For the simple things, we had a little Canon around the corner from our office, and for the high-volume jobs, we still took the work to the corporate photocopy center.

When Xerox listened to its (photocopy center) customers, it got no signal from them that this little tabletop thing was important. But then Canon, little by little, made it better and faster and more capable and more convenient to use until, ultimately, an entirely new market was created. Now it seems that to be within 15 seconds of a high-speed photocopy machine is almost a constitutional right, you know?

And Xerox missed most of that growth. Oddly, it’s because they listened to their customers rather than doing a deeper analysis of, “Well, what is the job that the customer is really trying to get done?”


Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.


New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.