1994. Friends and ER debut. Kurt Cobain departs. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. The OJ chase. Forrest Gump.
Oh, and the consumer internet as we know it is born. Netscape, Yahoo!, and Amazon all appear. And a complete restructuring of power in the areas of Communications, Content, and Commerce begins.
If the last twenty-two years were crazy, the next twenty-two are going to be wild. But first, let’s review…
Communication becomes instantaneous and free
Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, Monica, and Joey first appeared in our living rooms on September 22, 1994. But when Central Perk appeared on air in that pilot episode of Friends, there were no wifi-enabled laptops there. No one was chatting on their LTE-connected iPhones with their…friends. In fact, Mosaic Netscape 0.9 launched exactly three weeks later, on October 13, 1994. The Netscape debut gave the average non-technical person a window to the internet for the first time and changed how the human race communicates at a scale never before imaginable.
Before the internet, person-to-person communication was limited to telephone companies (privately owned, with fees charged to the user for network interoperability aka “long distance”), snail mail (government monopoly in most countries in the world), and — in earlier times — telegraph (i.e. Western Union, an industrial monopoly in the US). Even the early days of online connectivity were walled-garden systems like Prodigy and AOL, where you had to have a paid subscription and could only interact with other paid members.
The world wide web or internet, however, is built as a decentralized system connecting servers all over the planet, accessible for free and navigable by anyone with a connection to it and a web browser. In any given coffee shop in the US today, a huge portion of the information exchange going on in the room is happening over a browser or derivative technologies like mobile apps with people residing somewhere else on the planet.
It’s inconceivable to imagine a world today where discussion and collaboration with our friends and with others from anywhere in the world wasn’t simply instantaneous and free. But that world was barely imaginable just twenty-two years ago.
Content becomes abundant and universally accessible
In January 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan appeared on the covers of TIME and Newsweek magazines after she had been viciously attacked at the request of her figure skating teammate, Tonya Harding. It was a media frenzy for weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the following month. That same month “Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web” appeared as a place where Stanford graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo organized their favorite web sites on the nascent, pre-Netscape internet. In March 1994, they changed its name to Yahoo!.
By organizing the wild corners of the internet in 1994, Yahoo! kicked off a revolution that over the next two decades would transform the content industries. Until then, content was by and large a scarce resource. Newspapers and magazines, television networks and studios, radio stations and record companies, and almost every other form of media business existed to create and package content in relatively limited quantities for purchase or distribution within a time window which they in most cases controlled. These businesses operated on the premise that there was only so much content to go around and they could manufacture demand for it. But with the internet, there was — and still is — relatively little if any scarcity. Just about any piece of content can be accessed at any time by just about anyone with an internet connection; Yahoo’s directory demonstrated that as early as 1994.
Google evolved this model dramatically through search. Facebook, YouTube, and the social media companies that emerged in the mid-2000s made it feel safe and easy for anyone to become a content creator with immediate global reach potential, and by the late 2000s the bulk of the content industries had basically 180’d.
There will continue to be innovation in the Content space. VR/AR, livestreaming, and the continuing ubiquity of online video are just a few of the opportunities that have emerged of late. But the pendulum in the content space has swung from scarcity to abundance, and the biggest winners are now the platforms and the organizers of this information, all of whom are internet-native companies.
Commerce: everyone is a global merchant
July 6, 1994. Forrest Gump debuts in theaters. In the final scene of the movie, Forrest is waiting for the school bus with his son, little Forrest. He opens the book his son is taking to school and a white feather is caught by a breeze and floats into the air. The movie ends. One day before that, July 5, 1994, Jeff Bezos incorporates a company called “Cadabra” which will go on to be Amazon.com, a website dedicated to selling books online, and in doing so he pioneers online commerce.
Not only has Amazon become a diversified multibillion dollar corporation through which you can buy just about anything, but online commerce now accounts for more than $1.5 trillion dollars of annual spend globally. With a few clicks of a button, the internet today enables just about anyone in the world to set up a shop and have access to sell goods to nearly anyone else in the world. It’s absolutely incredible.
The events in Forrest Gump span nearly 30 years; the amazing emergence of global ecommerce has happened in just twenty-two.
The Next Twenty-Two
Software — and more specifically software with the internet-connected core at its center — is “eating the world”. We now have a globally connected and decentralized communications infrastructure, tools for individuals to create and distribute content at scale through it, and the capacity to buy and sell goods from one another largely without requiring a physical storefront to do so.
So if Communication, Content, and Commerce have essentially already gone through a complete restructuring over the last twenty-two years, what are the next industries and institutions that will experience the same massive, existential shifts over the next twenty-two?
The current pace of innovation all but guarantees that just about every industry will be dramatically different twenty-two years from today, especially if you believe we are at this moment standing right at the face of an exponential curve in technology-based progress. But in particular, a few specific industry segments seem to now be in the process of significant realignment.
Transportation, Finance, and Health all seem to be mid-shift. And Agriculture, Education, Energy, Government are showing signs of change that is soon to come. Each have entrenched regulation and administrative complexities. And due to that, each largely avoided software-based restructuring in the 1990s and 2000s.
Predicting exactly what will happen in these industries over the course of decades would be a fool’s errand, but here are some observable trends in these specific segments where technology-driven change seems to be most exciting, impactful, and immediate.
Mid-shift: Transportation, Finance, Health
Transportation is mid-transformation now, with incredible innovation shifting decades-old institutions. Uber and Lyft are the obvious examples here, leveraging the ubiquity of smartphones with GPS and real-time mapping to completely disrupt first the taxi industry but more broadly to set the stage for a 21st century transportation and logistics paradigm. Companies like Max.ng (Techstars ’15) are redefining logistics in emerging markets. Navdy is changing what our experiences are like behind the wheel. And autonomous cars and drones are part of the massive change that this segment is undergoing. To underscore the impact that a software-based core will have here, a recent post on autonomous cars reminds us:
…when one self-driving car makes a mistake not only does that one car learn how avoid the same mistake, but every other car — now and in the future — learns with updated software.
Finance is equally seeing high amounts of innovation right now. Blockchain’s decentralized ledger system has the potential to change the underpinnings of finance dramatically and big banks are starting to lean in. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin can transform cross-border trade and remittances as well as basic commercial transactions. On top of this, large populations of the world remain unbanked and new platforms are helping them get credit, transfer money across borders, and become members of the global financial ecosystem. There’s been excitement about altogether new sorts of banks being created like Simple, which has had its challenges but may be the first step in a new banking model. One doesn’t have to squint to imagine a significant overhaul of the banking system on the horizon.
Health is undergoing substantial innovation on all fronts. Advances in Nanotechnology by companies such as Proteus are changing the way we consume and understand medicine. Advancements in genetic sequencing (like Crispr-Cas9) are allowing us to develop new treatments at an exponentially faster pace than ever before as demonstrated by companies like Editas. The ubiquity of smartphones is enabling new marketplaces to emerge, and companies like HomeHero are reimagining legacy, fragmented systems such as in-home care. Additionally, as the regulatory environment increasingly incentivizes healthcare systems to provide care more efficiently (value-based care), novel technologies are stepping in to help. Paperwork and process-heavy workflows are being replaced with software and analytics, as evidenced by startups like Silversheet and PotentiaMetrics. And finally, there’s the argument that if you are alive in 30 years, chances are good you may be alive in 1000 years — due to innovation of course.
Next wave: Agriculture, Education, Energy, Government
Meanwhile, Agriculture, Education, Energy, and Government are showing signs of significant software-driven change on the horizon. How we grow and consume food, how we learn, how we harness and use power, and even how we manage and (hopefully more efficiently!) operate our governments appear to all be in the midst of flux. An example of the latter is SPIDR Tech (Techstars ‘15), a big data platform for law enforcement to make policing more efficient.
There’s only one thing for certain
Predictions aside, there’s one thing we should hopefully all take as truth today, which is no matter what happens, the pace of software-driven innovation across all aspects of our lives is only increasing. Technology gives us fun new ways to stay in touch with our friends, watch video on the go, and buy obscure styles of sneakers, but it also has the potential to keep more of us healthier, to raise more of us out of poverty, and to in many other ways improve the lives of so many around the world. One could argue that technology is changing our world so fast that the very edge of what we can each imagine is no longer science fiction but rather is quite possibly something we will be achieve within decades. Change is for certain. And the next twenty-two years are sure to be a wild ride. One of the top ten albums of 1994 was Soundgarden’s Superunknown, and what an apt description for the future in front of us.
This post was originally published on Medium.