Most of us are interested in the business and social implications of rapidly advancing technology rather than the wonky details of the technology itself. With everyone braying about new breakthroughs every day, how do we make sense of what we hear?

I’ve already written about one framework to help us better understand emerging technology, but there’s another framework I find quite useful. This framework rests on a key distinction between foundational technologies and disruptive applications, which are often easy to confuse. Grasping their differences, however, is critical to understanding technological breakthroughs.

For example, when NetScape created their first browser in 1994, everyone talked breathlessly about TCP/IP, the fundamental protocol for internet communication. Many failed to understand that TCP/IP was a foundational technology, poised to change the way we live and work with a myriad of online experiences, whereas the NetScape Mosaic browser was one among many disruptive applications of TCP/IP.

Let’s take a look at some key distinctions:

Foundational Technologies…

Create new foundations for our economic, political, and social systems

Appear abstract and theoretical; require background in science or technology to understand

Take decades to seep into our business infrastructure

Are adopted steadily and gradually

Enable novel, complex systems

Disruptive Applications…

Usually begin in the commercial world, attacking a traditional business model with a lower-cost  solution and overtaking incumbent firms quickly

Are communicated with a simple and clear business value proposition

Emerge over years; never require decades

Disrupt existing industries with targeted, rapidly-growing ventures

Enable transformative applications

Here are a few examples:

We can count on government labs and large corporate R&D facilities to continue pumping out the basic research leading to foundational technologies. When it comes to disruptive applications, though, my money is on (1) startup entrepreneurs, and (2) intrapreneurs at large companies who are given the latitude to create bold new ventures. For example, global giant Schneider Electric recognized the incredible advance of renewable energy as a broad foundational technology. To leverage this technology and create a disruptive application, we worked with a small, nimble team from Schneider to build eIQ Mobility, a groundbreaking application for charging fleets of electric vehicles.

The next time you hear a breathless description of an emerging technology, try to categorize it as a foundational technology, a disruptive application, or something in between. I’m confident you’ll find this distinction helpful when making sense of the unruly world of technology.

Dave Blakely is SVP Developing More Disruptors at Mach 49. Dave helps Mach49‘s clients build businesses at the intersection of emerging technologies, business opportunities, and customer needs. Read his full bio here.