Main illustration: Tess Smith-Roberts
As we cross the threshold from one decade to another, it’s natural to look back at the previous 10 years and try to make sense of events.
Putting narrative order on the past decade, a 10-year-period that has somehow remained stubbornly nameless, is quite the challenge, but it’s impossible to make sense of the 2010s without understanding the role of software.
It was in August 2011 that Marc Andreessen coined the famous phrase “Software is eating the world” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He suggested that “we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.”
“In many ways, our growth has reflected the trajectory of the decade in technology”
Just a few days after Andreessen published his piece, Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, Ciaran Lee and David Barrett founded Intercom – and in many ways, our growth has reflected the trajectory of the decade in technology, fulfilling Andreessen’s prediction that small startups can reach previously unimaginable scale faster than ever by leveraging the increasingly affordable power of mobile and cloud computing.
Here, we trace some of the biggest trends and stories in technology over the past decade, and try to find a narrative to make sense of it all.
Big tech takes over
The tech equivalent of the “great man theory” of history is the “big tech company” theory of technological progress.
Viewed this way, it might seem like the 2010s were less eventful than the 2000s – after all, the tech giants of today are largely the same as a decade ago. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and, to a degree, Twitter, are all pretty much as prominent today as they were a decade ago. If anything, this was the decade they collectively became leaders not just of the technology industry, but of industry itself – Apple overtook ExxonMobil as the world’s most valuable company by market cap in August 2011 (that month again), and then became the first trillion-dollar company by market cap in 2018. As the decade wore on, the title of most valuable company has basically rotated between Cupertino, Mountain View, Redmond, and Seattle ever since.
“Microsoft pivoted from chasing after Apple’s success in the consumer space under Steve Ballmer (don’t mention Nokia) to successfully focusing on the cloud under Satya Nadella (please do mention Azure)”
But each of these giants evolved in different directions over the past 10 years, many under new leadership, while facing up to the unfolding responsibilities of this new era of tech dominance.
Apple survived the death of Steve Jobs in October 2011 under the thoughtful stewardship of Tim Cook, and continued to essentially be the iPhone company, while branching into wearables and services. The ultimate failure of Siri to dominate the AI personal assistant game might come to be seen as its biggest miss of the decade.
Google, too, saw a smooth transfer of power from its founders to a new CEO, Sundar Pichai, while also strengthening its core business of search advertising and reorganizing under Alphabet.
The most triumphant transfer of control from an original generation leader to a new CEO was surely that of Microsoft, which pivoted from chasing after Apple’s success in the consumer space under Steve Ballmer (don’t mention Nokia) to successfully focusing on the cloud under Satya Nadella (please do mention Azure).
Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, struggled under the unavoidable pressure of hosting half a globe’s worth of daily online communication. It is impossible to police such a digital realm to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, but Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey frequently seemed fazed by the very responsibility. Facebook was peerless, however, in being able to harness and monetize all that attention, even if that success brought uncomfortable scrutiny.
And finally Amazon, which continued its relentless march on all facets of modern industry by dominating online retail, winning the AI personal assistant war with Alexa, while providing the backbone to the modern internet with Amazon Web Services. It is very possible that no other company has done as much to shape our decade as Jeff Bezos’s behemoth.
Rise of mobile
Inspired by Andreessen’s maxim, in 2014 Benedict Evans coined the phrase “Mobile is eating the world,” which in retrospect feels like it downplayed just how much our daily lives have become consumed by our smartphones.
The scale is extraordinary. There are about 3.2 billion smartphone users worldwide according to recent estimates, which is about 42% of the global population. To give some perspective, there were about 300 million smartphones sold in 2010.
“Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay demonstrate how apps are revolutionizing our economies – they have swiftly become the default payment mechanism across China”
More important than the sheer number of devices out there, however, is the degree to which they have become extensions of ourselves – we are always online now, to the extent that any distinction between online and real-world life is being blurred to the point of invisibility.
When Apple started using the catchphrase “There’s an app for that” in 2009 to convey the breadth and variety of apps available in its App Store, we could barely begin to picture just how true that would become – well over half the time spent online in the US is spent on smartphone apps. In Asia, the likes of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay demonstrate how apps are revolutionizing our economies – they have swiftly become the default payment mechanism across China.
These apps provide effectively infinite distractions, with the result that boredom has for all intents and purposes become a thing of the past. The state of having nothing to occupy your mind but the thoughts in your mind is increasingly alien to us, more of a memory from childhood than a facet of our daily existence.
And it’s not just boredom that is receding into history. In the era of Google Maps, Uber, and Lyft, being lost increasingly feels like an ailment from a different era, like smallpox or bubonic plague.
Instagram and Snapchat have changed photography into a medium of personal expression, birthing a new industry – influencers – and even changing our notions of beauty (with some disturbing results.)
“If there was a time when people felt talking on the telephone was impersonal compared to talking in person, and a time when sending messages felt impersonal compared to talking on the phone, those figures alone suggest those reservations have well and truly been left behind”
The likes of Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble have remade the dating scene entirely – love, relationships, and the laws of attraction are suddenly operating in an environment of maximum convenience and the illusion of infinite choice.
And then there’s messaging. Consider WhatsApp, founded in 2009 and now hosting more than 65 billion messages every day. In China, WeChat, which launched in 2011, sends about 45 billion messages every day. If there was a time when people felt talking on the telephone was impersonal compared to talking in person, and a time when sending messages felt impersonal compared to talking on the phone, those figures alone suggest those reservations have well and truly been left behind. The era of the smartphone can also be seen as the era of personal messaging.
The impact of social media
It’s hard to recall now, but there was a time, particularly around the Arab Spring of 2011, when it seemed that Facebook and Twitter would usher in a new era of enlightenment across the world, shifting power to the people by freeing our social and political discourse from traditional gatekeepers.
Not everyone bought it at the time (Evgeny Morozov was the most vocal skeptic of the theory), but it was hard not to be swept up in the promise we saw on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli.
“All technology is amoral, after all, and social networks are as amenable to carrying threats and disinformation as they are to carrying jokes and memes and our common dreams”
Subsequent years, however, have shown how naive those hopes were – all technology is amoral, after all, and social networks are as amenable to carrying threats and disinformation as they are to carrying jokes and memes and our common dreams. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed just how vulnerable these platforms are to being misused by bad actors.
It will take some time to discern just how fundamentally our political and social discourse will be changed by the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but just as with every revolution, it will lead to both positive and negative outcomes, to both delight and disillusionment. There is a great responsibility to ensure it trends towards the former, not the latter.
Rise of the cloud and SaaS businesses
If the smartphone is foundational to the social changes we’ve seen in the past decade, then the cloud is foundational to how business has changed.
Cloud computing spent a long, long time as a nebulous buzzword, until one day everyone realized it wasn’t a buzzword at all, just a way of describing the infrastructure underpinning the decade’s technological progress.
“At a time when SaaS companies represent the vanguard of disruptive innovation, it’s not surprising that an armada of non-software companies are following suit”
Thanks primarily to Amazon Web Service and Microsoft Azure, startups were able to reach global scale at hitherto unimaginable speed – companies as diverse as Netflix, Figma, and, well, Intercom could simply “run less software” and focus on building their own differentiated technology, leaving all the undifferentiated heavy lifting to someone else.
The wave of SaaS companies that built themselves on the likes of AWS and Azure have reinforced the pre-eminence of cloud computing. What was perhaps less predictable was the ensuing prevalence of the subscription-based business model.
At a time when SaaS companies represent the vanguard of disruptive innovation, it’s not surprising that an armada of non-software companies are following suit by attempting to replicate the business model in a bid to attract investment. And so we end up with juice companies, meal-kit companies, underwear companies, to select just three, seeking to mimic the “as a service” aspect of SaaS.
As Des has often pointed out in his talk “Customer retention is the new conversion”: “This is what we’ve ended up in: a world of subscription everything…If there is a thing that you buy regularly, you can have it show up on your doorstep every month for $9 or equivalent. And that changes a lot: how we think about marketing, how we think about what our product is and how we think about what customer success actually is…This shift moves us from brand promiscuity to brand loyalty.”
And it’s not just the startups playing this game – Steve Jobs was proudly averse to the notion of subscriptions, and now Apple spends most of its earning calls boasting about the performance of its services division.
Streaming disrupts the culture
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the subscription model quite as dramatic as in popular culture. From movies and TV to music, we now live in a cloud-enabled, subscription-based streaming wonderland.
Steve Jobs’s claim that “People want to own their music” rather than rent it might have been right when he said it around the time of the iPhone launch in 2007, but the very fabric of our culture has shifted entirely since then.
“In the space of a decade, then, DVDs, CDs, MP3 downloads, and even TV listings have gone from a staple part of our lives to downright archaic relics of the past”
Founded a year after Jobs uttered those words, Spotify now has 248 million monthly users, and utterly changed expectations around how we pay for music – it is no longer about the act of collection, but instead a constant act of musical discovery. Apple finally relented and joined the streaming game in 2015.
Television has similarly been consumed by the streaming revolution. Netflix had 12 million subscribers for its DVD delivery service in 2010, when it decided to make video streaming its primary focus (dear reader, feel free to insert Qwikster joke here). Today, it has 158 million subscribers, and its stock was the best performing of the decade, up 4,181% over the period.
In the space of a decade, then, DVDs, CDs, MP3 downloads, and even TV listings have gone from a staple part of our lives to downright archaic relics of the past.
Maybe the rise of streaming spells the end of the mainstream – while we were once part of a collective audience of a common popular culture, the profusion of choice has increasingly atomized our entertainment.
Perhaps Game of Thrones will be remembered less for its shock twists or disappointing finale than for being the last show of its kind, the final exercise in collective televisual entertainment. The Iron Throne, it turns out, was our shared attention, and that too is melting away under the fierce heat of our distracted world.
The decade ahead
It has been an eventful, often fraught decade in tech, then, and that’s not even to mention artificial intelligence or machine learning, Alexa or Siri, Bitcoin or WeWork, Edward Snowden or GDPR.
Bill Gates once made an astute observation about our poor grasp of how technology makes an impact over time: “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in 10.”
“From romance to culture, the bonds that connected us as people have been reshaped with incredible speed”
That feels particularly apposite when looking at the decade just gone. Ultimately, all these threads have contributed to two very fundamental shifts. One transformation is in how we interact – with the world and with one another. The other transformation is in how businesses are increasingly reliant on long-term, subscription-based relationships with their customers.
As 2009 turned in to 2010, most of us would have known that the rise of the smartphone, apps and cloud computing would lead to significant change, opportunity, and upheaval across the planet, but few of us would have been able to predict the shape or direction of those changes.
They’re disrupting and disintermediating our traditional personal connections – from romance to culture, the bonds that connected us as people have been reshaped with incredible speed.
It is in this fast-changing landscape that Intercom has thrived – our mission is to make internet business personal, and we think deeply about how a sense of personal connection can be fostered and maintained in a dramatically changing digital landscape.
Whatever unfolds over the next 10 years, or even the next two, enabling businesses to make meaningful connections with their customers is going to feel more vital than ever.