The 5 Most Disruptive Technologies of the Last 20 Years

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The 2010s are nearly over, and in just a few months, the 2020s will begin. The last 20 years will go down in history as an age in which disruptive technologies appeared and unseated deeply entrenched players who were once thought to be completely untouchable. What will the future bring? The last two decades have taught us that no industry is impossible to penetrate if you have a great idea and can secure the funding necessary to bring your idea to the market. Even now, entrepreneurs around the country are plotting the next innovations that will knock the world’s biggest corporations from their thrones – or at least force them to think differently. What will those innovations be? Maybe the best way to look forward is by looking back. These are the most disruptive technologies of the past 20 years.

Electronic Cigarettes

When you think about industries with major players that can’t be beaten, the tobacco industry must be one of the first industries that come to mind. The main American tobacco giants – Altria and Reynolds American – aren’t just huge corporations. They’re practically protected by law because it’s illegal to release a new tobacco product in the United States without first proving to the FDA that the product presents a net gain for public health. Good luck proving that a cigarette is beneficial to public health!

The tobacco companies were so secure in their leadership that they never foresaw competition coming from a completely different sector of the market. The electronic cigarette appeared out of nowhere in the late 2000s and presented tobacco users with a smoke-free alternative that felt the same, tasted pleasant and had no tar. The electronic cigarette also wasn’t a tobacco product (not at first, anyway – the FDA applied that definition retroactively in 2016), so it was legal to sell.

For millions of former smokers around the world, the electronic cigarette hasn’t just been a disruptive technology; it’s been a truly life-changing product. Those in America who vape, however, know that the story has a bit of a sad ending. One e-cigarette brand – JUUL – eventually claimed undisputed leadership of the U.S. vaping market and was bought by Altria. In the end, Big Tobacco won, after all. Nevertheless, there is hope for the rest of the world; UK e-cigarette buyers should take note of what happened here and remain vigilant.

Cloud Computing

The term “cloud computing” may not mean much to you if you aren’t a professional in the tech industry, but cloud computing has become an inescapable part of daily life for anyone who uses a computer or smartphone. Your favorite web-based services – from Gmail to Facebook – are hosted on cloud infrastructure. The cloud makes web-based services fast, almost impossible to hack and accessible from anywhere.

Cloud services are the reason why you can break your phone, buy a new one and have all of your pictures, videos, and applications back exactly as they were in a matter of minutes. Cloud computing is also the reason why slow, inexpensive computers like Chromebooks are viable products; they don’t need serious computing power because cloud-based servers do all of the heavy lifting.

Electric Cars

Until recently, the totality of the American auto industry had been the “Big Three” – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – for as long as anyone could remember. It would have been impossible, most people thought, for a fourth automaker to start from nothing and create any measure of competition for the Big Three. Those people didn’t count on the imagination and tenacity of Elon Musk.

Tesla was founded in 2003 – the same year that General Motors killed the EV1 program, saying that fully electric vehicles would never be profitable – and Musk acquired a controlling interest during the company’s first funding round.

Tesla’s rise since then has been steady and unceasing, with the company now selling nearly 100,000 vehicles per quarter. While that’s not enough to penetrate the list of the world’s top 20 largest automakers, it’s certainly enough to make other manufacturers take notice. In the United States, Tesla leads all automakers in electric vehicle sales by a wide margin.

Gig Economy

What do services like Fiverr, Uber, and DoorDash have in common? They all leverage the labor of independent contractors who perform services without accruing pensions, receiving health insurance, or enjoying the protection of most labor laws. The gig economy has made low-cost services such as the ones mentioned above possible and enabled anyone to buy just about anything from a foreign language lesson to delivered food while paying the laborer who provided that service less than minimum wage.

The gig economy has been an amazing thing for consumers who have enjoyed drastic price cuts for services like taxi rides during an age in which even the most basic things sometimes seem incredibly expensive. It’s also enabled the formation of some of the world’s fastest-growing businesses.

For those who provide the gigs, though, things haven’t been quite as rosy. Contractors for companies like Uber may earn enough money to live, but they don’t earn enough money to better their lives. They feel like employees, but they don’t enjoy the security and benefits of employment. Contractors also pay much higher tax rates than employed individuals – a fact that gives many people around the country a nasty surprise each April.

Smartphones

Motorola, Palm, Nokia, and BlackBerry – remember when those companies used to make phones? Neither do we; the modern smartphone has been ubiquitous for so many years now that it’s almost impossible to remember the time when people used to walk around with flip phones.

When the iPhone was released in 2007, Motorola was an industry juggernaut that sold more than 35 million phones per year. In comparison to those commodity phones, the iPhone was an expensive boutique product that would never challenge Motorola’s sales figures – right? Wrong.

By solving all of the things that were wrong with the phones of the time, Apple created a product that everyone simply had to have, regardless of the price. Apple now sells upwards of 80 million iPhones during its biggest quarters, with similar phones running the Android operating system claiming most of the rest of the market. Since mobile devices now account for about half of the traffic on the web, there’s around a 50-percent chance that you’ve just read this article on an iPhone or iPhone clone.