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How disruptive technologies are influencing business

A disruptive technology is a type of innovation that alters the ways in which businesses have to operate. Just think how much has changed within the last ten years with the growth of the internet and portable devices as a part of our every day lives - that has not come without huge changes within the commercial world! And with the ever increasing fast pace with which innovation is currently progressing, businesses are having to constantly try and keep ahead of the game.

Disruptive technologies are hugely influential because although they may start at the bottom of the market as unpolished start up ideas, they can quickly grow and send shockwaves across industries. Businesses can be slow to recognise their potential impact as sometimes they can be hard to detect with only a gradual rise in users and small amount of initial exposure or simply seemingly irrelevant in relation to other products out there. For example, Pinterest which launched in 2010, took several years to see the explosive growth it now enjoys, now outranking Twitter in the US for popularity and rivalling Facebook advertising for retail purchase referrals.[1]

But to be disruptive, technologies do not need to be radical or novel from an engineering or technical perspective. Many become disruptive simply because, as successive improvements develop the product, they cross a boundary in price, performance, accessibility or capability which eventually leads to a dramatic increase in users as they steal customers away from other competitors. The capabilities of disruptive technologies cannot be ignored for the fact that they can re-shape entire industries. Just look at the influence of Skype, iTunes, Google, Ebay, Uber and Twitter to see how things as disparate as calls, music, libraries, taxis and newspapers have been disrupted by these innovations.

With this in mind, TechCrunch holds an annual “festival of disruption”, CNBC produces an annual “disruptor list” of the most disruptive companies and consultancies are increasingly being asked to produce reports on the current market to alert businesses of what might be the next big thing to rock a particular sector's audience.

So what are the main disruptive technologies at the moment which will continue to remain important for businesses to consider?

  • Mobile internet – As smartphones and data packages becomes less and less expensive for the average consumer to enjoy, and with continued improvements to 3G and 4G speeds and availability, using the internet on smart devices is becoming easier. This is dramatically changing the way people shop, communicate and go about their daily lives and is only set to continue.
  • Automation of knowledge – Software systems are becoming more and more 'intelligent' in order to perform unstructured commands and make subtle adjustments to the way we use technological devices. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google has said that computers used to be simple 'command and control interfaces' but are in the future more likely to become 'friends' in the sense that they will be able to understand what you care about (from data mining on your previous browsing history for instance) and then create suggestions of what you should do next.[2] We have started to see aspects of this with personalised advertising on the web but the array of suggestions that could be made will become deeper and more advanced as technology becomes a more integrated part of our lives.
  • Internet of Things – Over a trillion objects have the potential to be connected amongst themselves with low cost sensors to increase data collection and decision making about our lives. Belkin's new WeMo Maker kit will allow many electrical devices powered by a DC transformer to be re-born from a simple object to a programmable appliance through your mobile, tablet or laptop.
  • Cloud technology – The vast amount of storage space that the Cloud offers businesses is pretty incredible. By uploading hardware and software onto a shared Cloud network, more information can be accessed by more people within a large company which inevitably increases efficiency and productivity.
  • 3D Printing – This new innovation is already a billion dollar business set to totally change the manufacturing industry. Printing successive layers of material from a digital model could even become accessible to the average consumer in the future, also allowing for personalised customisation and saving on the manufacturing costs we all pay when buying a product. At the Consumer Electronics Show 2014, over 24 3D printers were on display compared to less than 10 the year before[3]. In 2014 100,000 units were shipped across the world and this is set to continue doubling.
  • Wearables – Becoming known as 'The Internet of You', this is the new generation of digital devices that are wearable and have the potential to gather helpful health data from your body or aid you in your normal daily activities. iHealth and Withings offer wristbands and software to monitor pulse, blood pressure and glucose levels, particularly important for the ageing population. Netatmo measures sunlight exposure and when to apply sunscreen whilst Beddit uses thin inserts into your bed sheets to record sleep patterns and suggests ways to improve. Apple has already launched the smart watch making mobile computing even more easily accessible to us and Google goggles are still in development to give us new ways to see our world. Accenture's Digital Tech survey found that a large proportion of consumers are interested in these products despite them not even being widely commercially available yet[4] – so when they are fully developed, they could be set to create a storm.
  • On demand Video – Online video streaming sites Netflix, Youtube, Amazon and Vimeo are now challenging traditional TV channels by working as production companies themselves. The huge success of many series' on these mediums has created a large audience which the streaming websites themselves are now taking advantage of, cutting out the TV broadcaster in between. The whatever/wherever/whenever model of media consumption is creating big waves in this sector, and the fact that cheap yet good quality recording equipment can now be accessed by the general public means that great footage can be created, distributed or sold by almost anyone.
  • Open Source Web 2.0 – The ability to have codes widely available on the web is stimulating innovation and makes building websites far easier than with Web 1.0. Codes can be pinched and edited freely allowing more exchange and more options to become available as coders can see more of what competitors are doing and create new and better solutions for user experiences.
  • SEO for Social Media – It's no wonder that 'search engine optimisation' is a thing since how else will information be found within the vast virtual library that is the web? But now, SEOs are more important than ever before in order to try and create a buzz around products and brands through sharing on social media. The power of social media has become an incredible phenomenon over the last five years and businesses are constantly trying to adapt to the new revenue streams it can potentially create. It is perhaps one of the most important disruptive technologies, with new positions of 'Social Media Execs' and SEO experts have been created within businesses for this very purpose of harnessing everything Google Adwords and Facebook advertising could offer. Social media is changing the way customers are reached as individuals can be targeted through what they have said they like -  almost pre-empting the need for a product before it has even been recognised by the consumer themselves. But SEO is not simply about filling a page full of keywords to ensure a high ranking on a Google search. Now Google is trying to ensure quality content gets the highest ratings by monitoring the time spent on a web page. This means that social media presence cannot simply be buzzwords and backlinks, but needs to actually be enjoyable and engaging in itself to create a more natural sharing snowball effect.

These disruptive technologies are already a fact and they are already out there affecting the way businesses are having to rethink the way they operate. Without taking full control and keeping track of the advancements in these areas, businesses are going to lose out as such products become more and more integrated into the lives of people across the globe. Commercialising new technologies is extremely important if they address the performance needs of customers as they will be quickly adopted by the majority if they are made widely available and affordable. Although initial commercialisation of emerging disruptive technologies may be a large investment with an uncertain outcome, if the cards are played right, a business can boom. Aggressively investing in technologies solely to retain current customers must always be balanced by the realisation that investment for the customer of the future is equally important. Those who do not look to what the future of these technologies might hold are set to eventually lose out.