Kittyhawk: When New Innovation Doesn't Take Flight

The HBR Case ‘Hewlett-Packard: The Flight of the Kittyhawk’ tells a story of an amazing innovation for which a market wasn’t ready. Why Kittyhawk? It’s an interesting counter-point of innovation against HP. Orville and Wilbur Wright, took their first steps toward unmanned flight on the windy beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It happened in 1903 at a time when the world was looking for someone to conquer the skies. Is it an innate desire to fly - maybe not, but surely people recognized the value which could be provided by this new mechanism for travel.

The case focuses on the Disk Memory Division (DMD) of Hewlett-Packard in 1992. The company was still viewed as a printer company by most, but they were working towards growing their mass storage technologies and supported both large corporations and consumers. They had seen success in creating high-capacity drives for 3.5’’ and 5.25’’ architectures and were “extremely successful in the marketplace.” Then along came Bruce Spenner, a GM of the DMD who saw a growing trend in the personal-device market (PDAs) and he wanted to develop a new type of drive that could meet that coming demand.

The problem, as you might expect, is that unlike the Wright brother’s plane that fulfilled mankind’s desire for manned flight, the 1.3 inch drive fell flat in the market places because no-one knew how fly it. It was a technological marvel, able to drop 3 feet (to meet one spec), super small (to meet another spec), had moderate capacity (to meet a third spec), but combined couldn’t compete in any niche. As Clayton Christensen would surely point out, it didn’t take on the low end of the market or provide a new business model. You argue that they were simply ahead of their time since PDAs were a market that never truly came to fruition, but that’s ignoring the critical fact that HP didn’t have a customer in mind when they built Kittyhawk. Over time they tried to modify the capacity and price point, but with the core architecture already established, they were unsuccessful and eventually not only canned the Kittyhawk, but the whole division.

If we could go back to mid-1994 when there was still a glimmer of hope, what you do? The problem is that at this time most people didn’t know what they needed. Technology was moving so quickly that software engineers couldn’t keep up. Capacity requirements grew, sizes of drives were shrinking, and new markets were developed over night. Given this situation Eric Reis would, of course, test the market. By working with customers, HP could gauge the market for each of the possible options. Once that’s determined, start focusing on that path and ignore sunk costs and missteps.

The same situation happens to startups and large corporations today. New technologies are developed every day and many of them don’t have a clear home. Luckily we can learn from HP and other companies that didn’t take the time to feel out the market before they started building.