It's probably not much solace to those who are losing their jobs in the news business because of the disruptive force that is the Internet, but newspapers aren't the only industry that's being rocked to its foundations by fast-changing technology.
It's hardly new or illuminating to say that, but it's interesting to look at the businesses that have been forever changed by the Net and related technology in the past few years--and to think about how they'll continue to change. Let's take a little refresher tour of how our lives—and the industries that support them—are changing:
• Newspapers: You know this one. Readers are deserting to the more up-to-the-minute Web. Classifieds are going over the side, because online classifieds simply are a much better (searchable) experience (and craigslist has made them free). Display ads are following--going where the audience is going. The remaining audience, meanwhile, is demanding more participation and input, and starting to create its own competitive content. And so on.
• Music: The precipitous drop in CD sales in recent months looks just like the newspaper circulation slide. Napster, and then the iPod and iTunes, have completely changed the way people acquire and consume music. The entire business model of the industry is collapsing, in part because record, er, CD companies--like newspapers--are having trouble understanding that they're not in the manufacturing business. (If you've never seen Bob Lefsetz' marvelously inflammatory blog on the music industry, it's worth adding to your RSS feed.)
• Travel agencies: Searchable ticketing and booking databases. Online booking. Instant reservations. Electronic ticketing. Sheesh, do travel agents even exist anymore? Why?
• Stock trading: Similarly: Does anybody have a broker anymore? It's faster and cheaper online. Technology has completely transformed the way financial markets work, from the ability to do instant analysis with spreadsheets and more sophisticated financial tools to the ability to buy and sell stock instantaneously. When I covered the stock market 25 years ago, a day when a total of 40 million shares traded was considered a very busy session on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, many individual stocks trade 40 million shares a day.
• Telephones: Can you remember life without cellphones? Next time you watch "Seinfeld," or "Broadcast News," marvel at how they functioned without the ubiquitous cell. It seems unimaginable. (Worst job I can think of: Running the pay-phone division at a big phone company.) And the iPhone, three weeks away, may change things all over again.
• Catalog retailing: Another antiquated print business. Remember when you had to pick up the phone, call a catalog retailer and place an order with a human being? How inefficient! Now it's click, click and done. Shopping has become ordering.
• TV and Movies: They're next. Broadband downloads, YouTube, Slingbox, TiVo's descendents--all of them are radically changing how we obtain and consume visual entertainment and information. In five years, you'll barely remember today's TV and movie landscape. It will be that different.
• The Web itself: Remember 300 baud? 1400 baud? 57600 baud? Now we're connected all the time, at broadband speeds--and wirelessly, no less. It makes virtually all of the above possible. And then add previously unheard-of technologies like global knowledge search, interactive mapping, etc. Ten years ago or so, all of this was essentially unthinkable. Now it's the Jetsons, and it's all around us.
You get the idea. We're living in an age of disruption, with entire industries being reshaped before our eyes. And the ones I've mentioned are just the "soft" information-based industries. For other reasons, similar tremors are shaking the auto industry and other parts of the manufacturing sector. Not to mention the effects of outsourcing. Keep an eye on healthcare and politics, which are ripe for the same sort of technology-driven disruption. (Imagine if newspapers covered these changes as intimately as they cover their own transformations?)
It could be argued that we've not seen technological and economic change this radical and disruptive since the industrial revolution two centuries ago. My pal Michael Rogers argues that we're living in an era in which workers in many industries will be the last generation in those industries. That's striking. And we've all got a front-row seat.
What I've presented is just a snapshot, a moment in time. All of the changes I've described are ongoing, and their ultimate effects remain unknown. The pace of technology innovation is accelerating, and we can hardly imagine how everything will play out. When it comes to predicting the future, about the only thing you can be certain about is that you'll be mostly wrong.
Think the last 10 years have been disruptive? Watch the next 10. The aforementioned Jetsons will look like antiques. It's going to be fascinating.