From cloud computing and lithium ion batteries to 3D printing and containerization, we collected the technologies that have done the most to shape the internet era.
The word disruption gets thrown around a lot. There are technical definitions of disruption like Clay Christensen’s and looser definitions that have led the label to be applied to pretty much any product or startup. We even had to restrict use of the word “disruption” by companies trying to enter their descriptions in our database through the CB Insights Editor.
But in the last 20 years, there have been specific technologies and product categories that truly changed how we live and work, and which are certainly notable. Below, we’ve collected our top 31 disruptive technologies from the last two decades. If you feel we missed any, please let us know in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before the rise of cloud computing, businesses were responsible for all aspects of their networking hardware and maintenance, regardless of how much they were using these resources at any given time. They were also without options when their servers were maxed out. Cloud computing companies like Amazon Web Services offered an alternative: rent storage space and processing power on their massive servers as needed. When clients use a provider’s servers, they’re charged. As soon as they stop, charges stop. This allowed companies of all sizes to access cost-effective computing and storage solutions and greatly lowered the cost of entry for tech startups. It’s proven so game-changing that even competitors like Netflix rely on AWS to keep their streaming services up and running. And for individuals as well, distributed cloud storage from services like Dropbox and Google Drive allow users to store files of all kinds and sizes on remote servers and access them at any time.
Few innovations have so disrupted the music industry like the advent of digital music files, specifically the MP3. These compact files could fit easily on CDs and hard drives as data, allowing enterprising early adopters to cram more music on older storage media and opened the way for compact MP3 players. It also opened the way for widespread and unstoppable file sharing and music theft, via early services like Napster and Kazaa and later via torrenting systems. More above-board services that use MP3 technology include iTunes, direct online music sales, and current streaming options like Spotify and SoundCloud.
The first touch screen may have been invented in 1965, but the technology didn’t make its way into widespread commercial usage until 2007, when Apple released its first iPhone. That opened the floodgates: future iPods and iPads relied on touch interfaces, as well as most smartphones following Apple’s lead. Now touch screen technology appears seemingly anywhere engineers can put it: self-service kiosks at museums and on subway platforms, video game and gambling machines in bars, and on restaurant order and checkout tablets.
As disruptive technologies go, Wi-Fi may have set a record for going from “not existing” to “ubiquitous” the fastest. The bandwidth that most Wi-Fi networks use was designated in the US in 1985 and the Wi-Fi Alliance, which helped create the technology, came about soon thereafter. Despite being introduced in the 1990s, though, Wi-Fi took off in the 2000s, when just about every new laptop and electronic device was outfitted with it. Around the same time, advances in wireless broadcasting and routers allowed networks to support more devices at faster speeds. Wi-Fi made the internet fast and essential and paved the way for its dominance in our everyday lives.
In 1994, Swedish telecom company Ericsson hit upon the idea to wirelessly connect peripheral devices to computers. With Intel, Nokia, and others also interested in this type of technology, the tech giants formed a Special Interest Group to ensure universal compatibility. The code name bluetooth was suggested by an Intel engineer and refers to a nickname of a Danish king who united what are now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into a single kingdom. The technology is now widespread and unites wireless headsets, wearables, sensors, peripherals, and a widening array of devices.
Mobile Internet, 4G/LTE
The names 4G and LTE have deceptively simple definitions: 4G is the fourth generation of the wireless mobile infrastructure that is used by many of the most recently released smartphones. LTE stands for “Long-Term Evolution” and is a standard designed to “to bridge the functional data exchange gap between very high data rate fixed wireless Local Area Networks (LAN) and very high mobility cellular networks.” These two technologies together helped enable the rise of smartphones and other mobile devices, thus creating an entirely new platform for computing, e-commerce, communications, and more.
Artificial intelligence has been slowly developing for many years, but deep learning represented a leap forward in machines learning to learn. Deep learning systems attempt to mimic the human brain via layers and layers of artificial neurons arranged in a “neural network.” That original conception has been around for decades, but recent advances in processing power allow modern deep learning systems to simulate more neurons than ever. These powerful computers use these artificial neurons to analyze massive volumes of data and learn to recognize patterns. The systems can then learn from their mistakes and successes and get better and better at recognizing images, speech, and even facial expressions, with applications across healthcare, fintech, customer service, and many other categories.
Long the promise of science fiction and still far from a widely used consumer technology, VR has nonetheless taken massive strides of late. The latest generation of smartphones are more equipped to fit into low-cost VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, giving large swaths of consumers the essential computing device to power VR. Higher-end options like Samsung Gear, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift have also made the VR experience more immersive, for everything from watching live events to playing video games. Startups like Lucid VR are also supplying consumers with devices to more easily create VR content, including a handheld VR camera. It’s by no means a dominant medium yet, but its use cases seem to be growing quickly, with interest far beyond entertainment to B2B applications such as job training, retail floor planning, and healthcare rehabilitation/training.
Augmented reality tech blends digital images and information with the “real world.” Google’s less-than-successful Glass tried, years ago, to augment user’s realities but fell short. Yelp’s Monocle feature allows users to peer through their smartphones and see information about businesses around them, which is cool, but not life-changing. A watershed moment in augmented reality came in 2016, when Pokemon Go took the world by storm, filling it with AR monsters that sent eager fans out on the hunt. High-profile startups like Magic Leap are betting big on VR and AR taking on larger and larger roles in an increasingly connected, digitally-backed world.
The heart of the Internet of Things is about connecting devices to each other, users, and the world via sensors, allowing users to access, control, and learn about the performance of these devices remotely. Low-priced sensors led to a boom in what could suddenly be connected: HVAC equipment, appliances, and vehicles are just a few of the earliest places low-cost sensors were employed. Corporates and startups alike are using information from sensors to help create smarter electrical grids, develop connected cars, and secure homes, among many other uses.
Natural Language Processing
Natural language processing, related to deep learning, is the science of teaching computers to recognize human language (speech and writing). Early search engines like Ask Jeeves encouraged users to type their questions using natural speech as opposed to just searching for key terms related to their request and hoping for the best. Now, every major company’s AI chatbot, including Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana, relies on natural language processing to understand user requests and return relevant results. And as more and more devices become connected, the number of things the average consumer can talk to will only rise.
The modern technological revolution is built on the backs of lithium ion batteries. Consumers are awash in digital devices of all shapes and sizes and they all need power: from laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, tablets, and smart watches all the way up to Tesla cars and at-home energy storage systems. Lithium ion batteries were disruptive because they enabled the spread of high-power usage devices that could be recharged. Successive improvements in the technology have increased their storage capacity and decreased their costs, leading to innovations in electric vehicles and solar energy systems.
Accelerometer Motion Sensor
The accelerometer is the tiny chip inside of a cell phone or tablet that monitors its position to keep the screen properly oriented, but this disruptive technology has a wide array of applications. For starters, it connects the device with the outside world, telling it what angle it’s at and which way it’s facing. Accelerometers inside laptops detect sudden falls and help protect their hard drives by deactivating them before the drop can impact the storage medium. They are also used in conjunction with GPS systems to figure out if a user is moving in the right direction and help orient them. Gaming companies also make use of these tiny devices by allowing players to shift the phone, tablet, or controller from side to side to control their digital avatar, especially in racing games. One sector that makes special use of accelerometers is wearables. Quantified self, fitness, and health monitoring wearables use accelerometers to measure how many steps users take, how quickly they move, and even if they have an accidental fall.
At its debut in the 1980s, 3D printing was hailed as an amazing new way for designers to create models and prototypes quickly and easily without using larger-scale production methods. The technology has progressed in leaps and bounds since then, with new printers using materials of all kinds including precious metals and concrete, and coming in a variety of sizes. Emerging startups make fabricating custom metal parts or even printing entire buildings possible. Replacement jawbones have been 3D printed and successfully implanted into people and bioprinting technology may soon allow scientists to create custom-printed organs. 3D-printed vehicles include a car and a robotic plane.
Computer vision is one of the linchpins making autonomous cars a reality. Advances in computing power and neural networks (like the ones used in deep learning systems) have led to computer vision systems that are able to more accurately process visual data by using large samplings of images and matching what they are seeing with the definitions in these groups. More sophisticated cameras also give computers even more information to use when making their assessments. Robust systems are now able to recognize faces and even facial expressions and early self-driving car tech can recognize where obstacles are and help avoid them. As this technology continues to advance, computer vision systems will become more sophisticated and see more like humans do.
In an increasingly online and connected world, security is more important than ever. It’s not enough to just have a difficult password, multi-factor authentication (MFA) asks the user for multiples pieces of information before allowing a user to access an account, making it more difficult for malefactors to gain entry. While not impervious, many high-profile companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple) offer MFA on their systems to help make them more secure. One of the most common forms is to have a successful password login trigger an automated text message to the user’s registered cell phone. The user then enters the code they’ve been given and can log in. Even if a hacker was able to beat the user’s password, they’d still have difficulty accessing the account without also having access to the user’s cell phone. Now many startups also include MFA on their apps and as biometric security becomes more widespread, MFA may become the norm, with a biometric element being one of the factors in the login process.
Biometric Cybersecurity, Fingerprint Scanner
Here’s another disruptive technology that has long been the province of science fiction: just press your finger on a surface and have the system recognize you and grant access. Cheaper sensors and more sophisticated phones and computers mean that more and more of these devices are coming standard with the ability to scan, store, and recognize a user’s unique fingerprints or other biometric data; in Google’s Pixel, a fingerprint scanner operates as a one-touch feature for unlocking the phone and specific apps and making payments. Cybersecurity experts warn that fingerprint scanners are far from foolproof, though as part of an MFA system, they can be helpful. Additionally, courts have ruled that a user can be compelled into unlocking their phone with a fingerprint, since biometric data isn’t protected under your right not to incriminate yourself the way a PIN is. Other recent biometric security features with disruptive potential include behavioral systems designed to recognize the way users typically do things online (browsing speed, typing cadence, etc.) and detect when these behaviors differ, indicating that the account has been compromised.
Blockchain is a powerful force with the potential to minimize fraud because its distributed ledger system and consensus requirement creates a record of a given transaction that’s stored in multiple places and cannot be easily tampered with. This system, with no third party needed to verify a transaction (because it’s secure and replicated across numerous computers) has been referred to as “trustless.” This is emerging as a major disruptive force in financial services and other asset-related industries where a third party like a bank or real estate company is typically called upon to verify a transaction between two parties (like a stock trade or real estate sale); blockchain makes these third parties less necessary while keeping transactions secure.
When texting first came to phones (during the era of keypad phones), it was a chore. Early adopters’ thumbs learned the keypads of these primitive phones by feel and mastered the Multi-Tap and T9 (“Texting on 9 Keys”) to send texts rapidly. Successive phones added full keyboards and eventually the fully featured touchscreen. Once texting hit the smartphone age, it really changed the way many people use their phones. The length and frequency of voice calls dropped way off and even email changed, becoming seen as more the province of business. Social media messaging made simple non-voice communication even more powerful, with Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp taking the texting framework and creating a faster and more flexible user experience. Then, when Snapchat created its self-destructing messages, it added a layer of urgency to instant communication. Now messaging in its many forms — via social media, encrypted apps, or through text — is a primary means people use to communicate, emojis and all.
Search Engines, Google Pagerank
The early days of online searching were a crapshoot: you waited for the dial-up process to finish, then poke around Lycos or Yahoo! or Alta Vista, and hope for the best. Users had no clear idea how powerful a search engine could be until Google and their Page Rank system came along. Named after co-founder Larry Page, it was designed to determine how important a site is, based on the number of links to it (the idea being that more important websites have more links to them), among other factors. The system eventually became a best-in-class search engine that ended up being so widely used that “to google” something has become a verb.
Maybe one of the least well-known tech revolutions on this list is the CRISPR gene-editing system. In the 1980s, the invention of a gene-editing process allowed researchers to make changes in the DNA of certain organisms. The process was long, slow, and costly; CRISPR represented a massive jump forward in gene editing, making it faster, easier, and less expensive. According to researcher James Haber, “[It] effectively democratized the technology so that everyone is using it. It’s a huge revolution.” Researchers are editing crops to make them heartier and more productive, engineering treatments to dangerous diseases, and more. Patents mentioning the technology and funding to companies working with it have skyrocketed.
Big Data, Hadoop
A couple of decades of online activity and vast new streams of data coming from IoT and mobile devices created a massive pool of data that companies knew had value, if only they could manage and analyze it. Enter Apache Hadoop: this open-source framework, released in 2011, helps organizations manage and process massive data sets in parallel computers simultaneously. Hadoop has allowed massive companies like Danske Bank to analyze the massive amounts of transactional data that the 150-year-old bank has acquired. Companies and consultants are using big data and in-depth analysis to spot market trends and customer preferences. Hospitals are even using analysis of their data stores to improve care by spotting risk patterns and analyzing relationships between the care provided and outcomes recorded and adjusting care accordingly.
Robots, Amazon Kiva
Robotics research has been chugging along steadily for decades, bringing automation to factories and other industrial locations. The Jetsons’ dream of a personal robot may still be far off (though maybe not as far as we think, based on the work some startups are doing), but one noteworthy advancement that recently hit warehouse floors has been Amazon’s Kiva robot system. Founded in 2003 by a former Webvan alum (a failed online grocery delivery startup), Kiva was designed from the outset to change the way warehouses worked. Apparently it has, because Amazon acquired the company for $775M in 2012 and immediately put the robots to work in their facilities. These stout, wheeled robots are only about 16 inches tall, but weigh over 300 pounds. They work by hauling around packages of up to 700 pounds in computer-optimized routes and have dramatically improved efficiency in the facilities where they’ve been deployed. They’re an amazing example of a disruptive technology taking an unexpected form. Instead of human-shaped robots doing activities the way a human would (with hands, etc.) these bots scoot around narrow warehouse corridors with more speed and efficiency than a human could achieve and have helped drive the e-commerce giant’s delivery costs and times down even further.
Mobile Apps, App Stores
In an era where there’s literally an app for everything, it can be hard to think back to a time when there just…wasn’t. But as soon as there were apps, there were app stores: clearinghouses for the menagerie of brightly colored icons that now occupy countless phone and tablet screens. The first one in existence, Hadango, actually predates the rise of the iPhone and smartphones in general. App stores didn’t really become disruptive until Apple’s App Store hit the market in 2007 to serve its game-changing iPhone and then iPad. They gave app developers a place to host their creations and get access to an audience, to the point where reviews and advertising on app stores can be instrumental to an app’s success. Now all major platforms have their own native app store.
RFID tags, like the Internet of Things, bring the digital and the real worlds together. These tiny devices can be almost as small as a grain of rice and allow electronic systems to passively track the location of the tag. While the first patent referring to the term “RFID” was filed in 1983, it’s only recently that these devices have become widespread. EZ Pass and other automated toll-payment devices use RFID tech to allow cars to move through toll plazas without stopping. It’s become increasingly common to have pets that might escape to the outside world tagged with RFID chips that can identify the animal even when a collar or physical tag has become lost. These tiny chips also appear in countless security badges and allow people through access points without keys or ID checks. One of the primary places where RFID tags have become popular is retail. From pallet- to item-level tracking, RFID tags allow retailers to know what they have in stock and where it’s located, as well as adding a layer of security since taking a tagged item out of a store can trigger an alarm.
Virtualization offers users increased flexibility by untethering the software that can be run on a machine from its physical hardware. Though in use since the 60s, virtualization is another technology that has recently become even more disruptive. The company VMWare was originally founded to bring virtualization to PCs, then servers, finally launching VMWare Server for full server virtualization in 2006. These programs and others like them allow IT departments the freedom to run more apps and environments on fewer machines.
Containerization and virtualization are very much cousins. While virtualization laid the groundwork for telling hardware what software system to emulate, containerization creates an even smaller encapsulated operating environment. It’s a less resource-intensive alternative to full virtualization. Encapsulation really took off with the release of open-source solution Docker, which helps users implement applications as “portable, self-sufficient containers that can run virtually anywhere on any type of server.” Containerized instances of a given operating system can occur on remote cloud servers and then be rapidly shut down and the resources reallocated. This is a big step forward for cloud computing systems that helps make them even more efficient for users and possibly more cost-effective as well, they could possibly “provision resources that are much more closely matched to demand on a minute-by-minute basis.”
While LIDAR speed guns have been in use by law enforcement groups for many years, their disruptive potential has spread to countless other industries. LIDAR determines the distance of items by sending out a laser beam and recording its travel time. They’ve given surveyors a much more efficient way to map larger areas more quickly, handling a single intersection in minutes rather than hours and giving back thousands of detailed data points. This, combined with sophisticated GPS systems, has led to a sudden surge in the availability of high-quality maps and navigation programs like Google Maps. It could also be instrumental in making truly autonomous vehicles a reality. MIT has even developed a “LIDAR on a chip” that is set to cause even more disruptions in 3D scanning.
World Wide Web
So many disruptions on this list are reliant on the internet in some forms or another that it can be easy to forget how disruptive the world wide web actually was when it first debuted. Massive amounts of data, instantly available to schools, institutions, companies, and most importantly, in people’s homes. Though the concept of the “internet” is older than the WWW, it was originally conceived of in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer researcher then working at CERN in Switzerland. He conceived of three technologies that still underlie much of the WWW today: HTML, URI (also called a URL), and HTTP. Berners-Lee’s original proposal to develop the Web wasn’t immediately picked up; his manager actually put the note “Vague but exciting” on the cover of the proposal.
The technology to support the Web was constructed by 1990, but it wasn’t until January of 1991 that servers outside CERN were activated. From there, adoption moved slowly and steadily throughout the industrialized world, with users purchasing clunky desktops wired with dial-up modems. Once it started catching on and home ownership of WWW-capable machines became the norm, the technology spread rapidly, reaching a quarter of American consumers in just 7 years. Faster download speeds were demanded by consumers, telecoms struggled to keep up, mobile internet became a thing, and the interconnectedness of the whole world as revealed by the WWW has fundamentally changed how we live and communicate. In 2011, a UN report declared access to the internet a human right.
Long the darling of a certain breed of tech devotee, Linux is disruptive on a couple of levels. From its humble beginnings as a fairly unwieldy operating system, there are now countless free Linux desktop OSes available that make handling day-to-day tasks like email and office suite work (making docs, decks, spreadsheets, etc.) just as simple as on Windows and Mac machines. Linux also pioneered their own version of the app store phenomenon by having all downloadable products in one spot. This way of adding new functions to a Linux system has also helped keep it free of much of the malware that plagues PCs.
Meanwhile, Linux has long been the leading language on servers and has recently begun creeping into more and more applications by major corporations. IBM’s Watson makes use of the Apache Hadoop framework, which was developed on Linux, and runs on the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 operating system. They’ve also been contributing code to Linux projects for years. And no mention of Linux’s disruption in the modern tech world would be complete without mentioning that it’s the code that underlies the Android phone OS, which currently holds about 90% of the smartphone market. While we may never see Linux dominating personal computing, it’s all around us nonetheless, quietly disrupting the world.
Did we miss your favorite disruptive technology? Let us know in the comments.
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