The Internet’s Adolescence: The Real World Catches Up Eventually

 

I started my career as an internet analyst back in the period of the dot-com bubble. They were heady days in which anything seemed possible. The world was changing in unprecedented ways and the possibilities were endless. The rules that governed the old world didn’t apply. Except they did. Investors soon twigged that dot-com startups were simply not able to deliver on their revenue promises and so pulled their funding. In an instant, the whole edifice came tumbling down. It turned out that those old fashioned and outdated concepts such as turning a profit actually applied to internet companies too. We have come a long way since the dot-com bubble, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as being a mature medium yet. Instead, it is entering its market adolescence and consequently still has a lot of growing up to do.

Regulation Comes Eventually

Although the internet and its associated technologies (apps, social, streaming, e-commerce, etc) are deeply embedded in our daily lives in the developed world (and increasingly so in emerging markets), it is still fundamentally just getting going. On a global level, each key sector of the internet economy is dominated by 1 company (Amazon/e-commerce, Google/search, Facebook/social, etc). A single dominant company is typically an indication of an early stage market and/or one that is about to be opened up with regulation. In the case of internet industries, it is likely to be a combination of both. Thus far, regulation has not yet properly caught up with internet companies. The global, borderless nature of their propositions and their relative lack of precedents makes regulation a highly challenging task. But it will happen.

Regulatory Repercussions

To be clear, regulation is not some shining panacea for business. But it is the price of being part of society and global commerce. The more deeply integrated into civic society that internet companies become, the stronger the likelihood for them to become regulated. And when regulation happens, the effects can be devastating for companies that have previously operated with free reign. When the European Commission, under lobbying pressure from Real Networks, compelled Microsoft to unbundle the Windows Media Player (then by far the most popular music player) from Windows in 2004, it was the trigger for a long period of decline for Microsoft, from which it is only just beginning to recover. Clearly, there were other market factors that contributed to its decline, but regulation was the tipping point. And the model of a competitor (Real Networks) shamelessly using regulation to give it a competitive edge over an established rival could reoccur. For example, any number of big Chinese companies looking to extend their reach to the west may view EU regulators as an opportunity to prize open the market for them.

The Pendulum Swing Of Disruption

When a new technology disrupts a traditional incumbent, it normally does so by being 3 things to the end user:

  1. Cheaper/free
  2. Quicker
  3. More convenient

Napster, YouTube, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, all of these companies have done exactly this. Because they most often build market share and presence using external funding, such companies turn existing economics upside down with loss leading tactics. The result is that audiences switch in their millions and incumbents are left in tatters. Any old business that relies on scarcity economics will be swept away.

Take Uber’s impact on taxi drivers across the world. In the UK, a black cab driver will spend 5 years riding around every street in London on a scooter, memorising every street before taking a $60,000 loan on a black cab. 8 or 9 years into the venture, a black cabbie might be in the money. In the days of Google Maps and Uber, those principles go out of the window. Uber has had such an impact in London, that the cab rank queues at train stations can be miles long because black cabs have so little street side business left. In New York, yellow taxi medallions (the city’s government certification for official taxis), once traded as high as $1.3 million each in secondary markets, but have dropped to $240,000 now that Uber and Lyft have ensured that you no longer need a medallion to operate as a taxi in New York.

This is the pendulum swing of disruption. But pendulums eventually swing back. That is when regulations, real world economics and new business model innovation come into play. The original market disruptors often either disappear or get bought. The recorded music industry is now finally building a new set of effective businesses around the disruption brought by Napster, which died as an entity before the millennium really got going. YouTube transformed video and was bought by Google, Skype cannibalized mobile carriers and was ultimately bought by Microsoft, Linkedin disrupted recruitment advertising and was also bought by Microsoft, PayPal disrupted credit card companies and was bought by eBay.

All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again

Today’s internet giants may have the appearance of being permanent features of the digital landscape, but they’re not. AOL, Yahoo, Netscape or MySpace looked immortal in their days, as the GAAF (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) do now. That doesn’t mean these companies cannot become long serving global superpowers. But history has a habit of repeating itself. Or as the fictional mythical Sacred Scrolls of Battlestar Galactica said: “All of this has happened before and will happen again.”

Never mistake normality for permanence.


Tagged in: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, MySpace, Napster, Netscape, Paypal, Real Networks, Uber, Yahoo, Youtube

One thought on “The Internet’s Adolescence: The Real World Catches Up Eventually”

  1. Neil Turkewitz says:

    Well done, and I really liked the parting shot: “Never mistake normality for permanence.” I do have one observation–you use the word “regulation” in a colloquial sense, and that is somewhat dangerous and subject to misinterpretation. I think that what you mean is that societies are still figuring out how to apply law to internet businesses and transactions that tend to view borders as irrelevant. But applying laws–whether related to privacy, security, intellectual property, anti-trust, etc. in a technologically neutral manner is different than “regulating the internet.” Regulations are generally a response to market failure, whereas laws are generally designed to establish the conditions for markets to work. Many actors in the internet space legitimately argue against “regulating the internet” and thereby threatening to erode the openness that has driven innovation. And many of them, intentionally or unintentionally, will conflate regulation with the application of laws. But that is where we need to cry foul. We should, as much as possible, avoid industry specific regulation based on a world that is rapidly changing. Operating a business on the internet should not be an invitation to government regulation. But–and this is a critical distinction, nor should operating a business on the internet be a “get out of jail free” card. As you correctly say, internet culture and businesses are maturing, and must mature. Principle #1 must be a rejection of theories of internet exceptionalism that would distinguish between online and offline conduct. The path to digital prosperity runs through the technology neutral application of laws. That should be our goal, not “regulation.”

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