AlphaSmart

By James Sloan

April 2012

In 1992, when personal computing was in its relative infancy, Apple Computer engineers Joe Barrus and Ketan Kothari, later joined by Ketan’s brother, Manish, launched a successful effort to produce and market “smart keyboards.” With these word-processing devices, the entrepreneurs targeted elementary school teachers who found personal computers unsatisfying for the tasks that they were trying to do. Joe, Ketan, and Manish’s new company, called AlphaSmart, Inc., developed and marketed a disruptive innovation that capitalized on the extraordinary growth of personal computing during the 1990s.

The company developed a device, also called the AlphaSmart, which was a portable, battery-powered, word-processing keyboard with a small LCD display. It functioned essentially like a simple digital typewriter, but it could be plugged into an Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) port for transferring text into a computer’s word-processing program for further editing or printing.

The AlphaSmart was successful in schools because it focused on a critical job elementary school teachers were trying to do that desktop computers were not doing well. Although desktop computers were powerful and versatile, they were complicated for many teachers to deploy, expensive for schools to own in large numbers, and distracting to students during the composition process. Teachers wanted a simpler, less expensive device that would enable students to spend more time learning to type and compose without the distraction of myriad other functions, the scheduling limitations of computer labs, or the demands of complex deployment and maintenance.

Understanding that elementary school teachers had a fundamentally different job to be done enabled the company to develop a product that performed well when measured by the desired attributes of simplicity, durability, portability, intuitiveness, and cost—even though the AlphaSmart underperformed desktop computers along dimensions such as speed, power, and graphics. This understanding of the job to be done led the company to target other groups that could also benefit from a “smart keyboard” and then adapt and promote the product effectively. The product and marketing strategy resonated with teachers, and thus the company brought computing power to millions of students around the globe.

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