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Top 5 Disruptive Gifts for the Holidays

Looking for the perfect gift for that early adopter in your life?  Have no fear, the Disruptive Competition Project is here to help with a list of the Top 5 Disruptive Products for your holiday shopping list.

1) 3D Printer

Have a few thousand dollars in extra disposable income?  Want to give a gift at the peak of its Gartner “hype cycle”?  If you do, think about getting that special nerd in your life a 3D printer, which can transform digital designs into three-dimensional objects.

A few high-quality “desktop” 3D printers are on the market, including the MakerBot Replicator™2.  (For the generous multi-millionaire readers of the blog, maybe the high-end Envisiontec Ultra is right for you.)

Don’t have AutoCAD or 3D design experience?  Don’t worry about it.  A thriving community replete with open-source designs can be found at  Download what you like and print away.  (They will also have a retail store open for the holiday season.).

The disruptive ramifications of 3D printing are enormous (particularly for IP policy, as Matt has discussed)—especially the rapidly advancing sector of high-end commercial 3D printing (also known as “additive manufacturing”), which looks poised to transform global supply chains by reshuffling global manufacturing.  Right now, 3D printing can be used to make “one-off” models and prototypes, but there is no reason to think that technology advances and increased demand will not lead to the scaling of this technology.  As market research firm “Transport Intelligence” notes:

3D Printing, combined with efficient manufacturing, will revolutionise the principles established in the first Industrial Revolution. Not only will local manufacturing re-establish itself close to end markets, but it will allow the flexibility to reconfigure in response to changing consumer demands. The nature of manufacturing will be very different from traditional models in which it takes established production plants months (or even years) to retool.

Although the short-term disruptive effect of desktop 3D printers is more humble, it certainly can replace some trips to the store for replacement parts and household items.  Break a shower curtain ring?  Don’t worry; just print one out.  Your headphones keep getting tangled?  Try printing this earbud holder.  Short on Halloween ideas?  Try out this polygon mask.

Since it’s the thought that counts, if you can’t drop $2000+ on a gift, think about getting your loved one a gift certificate to Staples, which is the first major retailer to announce in-store 3D printing.  Unfortunately, this might only help our Benelux-based readers this Christmas, as Staples is trialing this service in Belgium and the Netherlands.

2) Amazon Kindle Fire HD

As we have discussed before, Amazon has a storied history of disruption.  The company started off by pioneering Internet commerce, which is putting pressure on the business models of brick-and-mortar retailers (particularly the “big box” retailers) as we speak.  Amazon then used the expertise it developed running one of the world’s most sophisticated websites and data centers to pioneer cloud computing, where it serves as the back-end and IT infrastructure for other companies.  Now, it is seeking to disrupt the tablet market by integrating its prior disruptive innovations to give itself unique advantages.

First, the Amazon Kindle Fire (and the new Kindle Fire HD) sports a disruptive business model by leaning on its e-commerce empire.  Amazon is selling its Kindle Fire at cost (or even a loss) and will make its profits from the content that Kindle Fire users buy.  This makes it difficult for competitors looking to make money on the devices themselves who still have to compete with Amazon on price.  Apple, for example, makes 40% margins on its iPads (although this number has decreased for the iPad mini).

Second, Amazon’s Kindle Fire’s web-browser, Amazon Silk, uses Amazon’s cloud-computing infrastructure to render web pages more quickly and process data offsite.  In this way, Amazon can do more with less–and lean on the economies of scale the company realizes in the cloud.  Therefore, at least in theory, Amazon’s Kindle Fire is greater than the sum of its parts and represents another way Amazon can keep costs down and quality up.

The Kindle Fire is the latest manifestation of Amazon’s disruptive ethos and the company is standing on the shoulders of its prior disruptive business models by combining its e-commerce and cloud expertise to revolutionize the tablet space.

3) Xbox

How is a seven-year-old gaming console disruptive?  Well, Microsoft is shifting strategies and turning the device into a multi-faceted home entertainment portal with a major emphasis on on-demand video content.  This year Microsoft has been particularly aggressive in ramping up the video content available to Xbox Live users, and has even signed a former CBS executive to beef up its own original offerings.  At present, cable companies are trying to constrain the disruptive potential of the Xbox (and other non-cable video distribution platforms) with tactics such as authentication and data caps.  Given that Xbox has nearly three times as many users as the biggest cable company (Comcast) has subscribers, it will be difficult for cable companies (and the major networks) to disfavor non-cable distribution channels in perpetuity.  The recent Netflix-Disney partnership is one sign that the balance of power is beginning to change and that the cord-cutting revolution might really be afoot.  If the cord-cutting trend continues as expected, Xbox is in prime position to benefit.  And, with the sale of over 750,000 new Xboxes on Black Friday alone, the platform’s momentum is not waning.

4) Chromebook

Although — at least in terms of form factor — a netbook is not particularly disruptive, the sum of the Chromebook’s parts is disruptive.  First off, the brain of the Chromebook — the ARM Chip — is disrupting the traditional x86 chip (made by Intel and AMD) that powered the PC revolution.  What started as a low-end processor in the niche mobile marketplace has scaled up quickly to where it is now found in low-end laptops.  Intel, for example, has not been as successful in coming down-market into mobile devices and is struggling to compete with ARM’s offerings on energy efficiency.

The Chromebook’s Operating System (OS) — based on Google’s Linux-based, open-source Chrome browser — is also potentially disruptive.  By focusing on building a streamlined, Internet-optimized OS that utilizes Google’s cloud storage and productivity applications and open-source economies of scale in R&D (aka crowdsourcing operating system innovation), Google can offer a 21st century OS to the public at no cost.

This all adds up to a $199 computer.  No longer is a $100 laptop confined to a charitable project, as the extremely low price point of the initial Chromebook offering illustrates.  And it is its affordability that is the core disruptive feature of the Chromebook.  At less than $200, it is making computers affordable to a much wider swath of the world’s population, opening up new markets to the world’s innovators.

5) Disruptive Apps – Uber

No 2012 post about disruption would be complete without some mention of disruptive apps.  As an Uber user myself, I was happy to receive an email touting the company’s new gift credits, which it timed to coincide with the Holiday Season.  Just log in, select an amount and deliver your Uber gift credit via email (or, if you must, print it out and deliver to the lucky recipient).

New apps such as Uber, Airbnb, Zimride and BlackJet are transforming markets for transportation and lodging by attacking market inefficiencies.  These apps are using the scale and connectivity of the Internet to connect willing sellers and willing buyers in ways not possible just a few years ago.  In the process, they are facing political resistance from entrenched business interests — such as cab associations and hotel owners — who are trying to make their lives more difficult.  However, as Uber’s recent success in DC politics has shown, users of these services have transformed into a powerful political force to fight back.  If this trend continues, the future for these disruptive mobile apps is bright.


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.