Internet-enabled industry disruption defined business strategy in the 2010s, but as 2020 begins, that era appears to be winding down.
The disrupters have largely become the new establishment, and unlike a decade ago, it doesn't look like the new leaders will be displaced any time soon. Today's internet is a mainstream technology.
This was not the case a decade ago. In 2009, multiple industries were in the midst of upheaval thanks to internet-enabled transformations. The iPhone was only two years old. In the music industry, compact discs still represented a plurality of revenue, and most of the rest came from digital purchases. Streaming, whether of music or on Netflix, was still in its infancy. We were in the middle of the transition from print ads to digital ones; 2009 was the last year the newspaper industry had higher ad revenue than Google, and the last year Facebook's revenue were less than $1 billion. E-commerce was growing, but Sears and Kmart were still large retail chains. YouTube was known mostly for a handful of viral videos.
Today, the music industry has become the streaming industry, with the industry's growth powered by subscriptions. Beginning a few years ago, total revenue started to grow again after 15 years of declines. The competitive threats to the leader in music streaming, Spotify, come from well-financed competitors with similar offerings, like Apple Music and Amazon Music, rather than a brand-new technology. The music industry may have been the first to be threatened by internet-related disruption in the late 1990s, with the growth of MP3 sharing and Napster, and is now perhaps the first industry to have completed its transformation.
The advertising industry has been transformed by Google and Facebook. Early in the 2010s, there was a popular chart showing that online ad revenue represented a much smaller share of total ad revenue than internet use represented for total time spent consumer content. The reverse was true for print media and print ads. Today that gap has closed. Print and radio now account for just 15% of total ad spend.
Perhaps no industry has been hurt more by the internet than physical retail. E-commerce has continued to gain market share. Many retailers have gone bankrupt. Malls keep closing. Sears and Kmart have closed hundreds of stores, and their parent company flirts with bankruptcy. Yet we've also seen that Walmart, Target, and Costco are more formidable competitors than the retailers that have disappeared, and all three have stock prices near all-time highs. Top-tier malls have reinvented themselves by adding restaurants, apartments and hotels.
Just because the internet has matured doesn't mean the next decade will lack for disruption. The energy and automobile industries feel the way that internet-related industries did 10 or 15 years ago, with solar energy and electric vehicles likely to take significant market share from hydrocarbons and gasoline-fueled vehicles in the 2020s. But those effects are likely to be more industry-specific, and the business world at large may no longer look over its shoulder wondering if a new internet-enabled technology might destroy its company overnight.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg columnist and a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta.