Business Unusual

Peak disruption - is the internet revolution almost over?

I don’t think we are done with disruptions to our digital lives, but in the next few paragraphs, I think I can make the case that most of the beneficial disruption might be behind us.

Business Unusual has looked at disruption based on four factors that amplify disruption in a sector.

  • a new entrant refocuses on customer needs to address an existing issue with a product or service

  • the new entrant usually uses a technology enabler to gain the advantage over the incumbent

  • the nature of the disruption was not foreseen, and so regulations are absent or insufficient

  • availability of well-funded investors with an appetite for risk

A recent investment by SoftBank made me wonder if the opportunities to the kinds of investment that meet the first three factors are becoming more scarce and so we can expect more venture capital funding to go to more usual looking businesses.

SoftBank bought a share in a Brazil startup that provides a gym membership to corporates. Potentially a good investment but it does not have the ring of an Uber or WhatsApp.

If we consider what has already been created or disrupted for our digital lives, then it is not surprising that disruption will reduce over time or that it will start again with disruption to the original disruptors. We are already seeing that Uber has many competitors, and Alibaba was inspired by Amazon. They may be new companies, but they are supplying the same service. We are less likely to see the new services we did not realise we would come to love or become addicted to or even enslaved by.

A brief history of the web

Here is a quick recap of some of the significant shifts since the web age dawned in the early 90s.

The World Wide Web was created in 1991, it was available to everyone who had access to the internet. Initially, that was a small group of people in the computer industry and researchers and academics.

The free flow of information suited the academic community and the free exchange of best practices benefited the computer industry. As more people began to use it, the idea that it should be free was expanded to other uses. It would prove to be a flaw in the plan, not that anyone was planning how this would work back then.

It is not that there were no opponents to the "information should be free" model, there were just more who believed that a way to pay for all the services would be determined later and only if needed as most of the community invested in it at the time were building it and not looking for payment.

Open source software is still a great and powerful product of this thinking, but privacy proved to be the actual cost.

The web took off in the late 90s as media coverage and venture capital began investing in web services and infrastructure in a big way. The Asian economic crisis had nothing to do with the booming web, but its impact on financial markets and the bubble that was growing in the tech sector came to a head in 2000. A small matter of a potential software bug that might cause many older machines to stop working after the 1st of January 2000 just added to the eventual crash (the bug was mostly addressed, but a lot of investment was diverted from new ventures to pay for the fixing of legacy systems).

The crash was bad but did provide a lot of capacity and started the growth and demand for web services all around the globe. Not only was there now a lot more capacity, but some mobile phones were also able to access the web too.

There were few services and speeds were slow, but Google’s efforts to help you find what you were looking for and the ever-growing group of people who had access began to use email, websites and social media.

Facebook’s origins required the right product, built by Mark Zuckerberg to connect people, but also offered the first time that those using it were themselves. Rather than strange usernames, you used your name, you added personal information, and even with a relatively small user base, Facebook could begin connecting you with people you have not seen in a long time. Old school friends, family members, work colleagues... It may have seemed like magic, but it was the clever use of network effects and efficient data harvesting. It would allow Facebook to become the largest community of people on the web, thanks to how much Facebook knew about you.

The most disruptive years

The period from 2007 to 2010 may not appear to be a golden age of disruption, but thanks to some key developments, it saw many of the now ubiquitous services launched. There was a little over a billion people with access to the web in 2007. By the end of 2010, it had doubled. All this during a global financial crisis.

The main driver was the mobile web. Apple launched the iPhone, Facebook released its mobile version and changed how you receive updates via the news feed. YouTube was founded. Netflix launches streaming. Amazon launched its cloud services and the Kindle. Uber was founded. Airbnb was founded. Google maps and docs had just been launched and Android the mobile operating software was released.

In just about every industry, we can track the tipping point or critical disruption that is now reaching maturity.

There were still many more disruptions to come from 2010 'till now, but those three years saw many of the unicorns that dominate our lives today having launched or reached a new tipping point.

Facebook may have just announced its Libra coin which could prove very disruptive, but it is rooted in Bitcoin first launched in 2009 and the payments that WeChat is known for. WeChat was launched in 2010.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats - OS Market Share

Android is in a battle it is likely to win to become the most used operating system on the globe.

The future of disruption

So that gets us to now and the possibility that while there is still much to be built and refined, it will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

That does not mean there will not still be a lot more disruption, but it will be the kind we need to fight rather than embrace.

As the big tech companies got so good at harvesting and using our data, we will need to disrupt how they get to access it and when it may be used. Doing so will have significant issues for services and behaviour that we have taken for granted. The mighty advertising machines that Google and Facebook operate will have to lose its ability to target us so easily, that means they will need to find new ways to generate revenue. Depending on what a paid-for version of Facebook or access to all Google’s services might cost, we may hopefully get to choose to go ad-free.

The real disruption, though, will come from what we have already lost, and as the world becomes more connected, it becomes even more vulnerable to cyber attacks. So do we, but we are more likely to feel the impact of disruption to real-world infrastructure than not being able to access apps.

It may surprise you that developed nations are adding cybersecurity risks to their military. The US military has added a fourth arm to its defence and offensive capabilities, besides the army, navy and airforce there is now also Cyber Command.

With hindsight, the disruption of the past might look quite innocent despite the impact on traditional companies. There may be less disruption in future, but it does not mean that we have seen the last of the contents of Pandora's box.

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