Disruption is something that you can usually only establish after the fact. A decade later or so you can look back and say ‘x’ disrupted ‘y’. Microsoft did it to IBM.
Disruption usually plays on a larger scale, for instance, the semi-conductor industry all but destroyed the vacuum tube industry (for certain purposes though vacuum tubes had hard-to-beat advantages potentially good enough for a niche revival).
On the web disruption takes place at a smaller scale. Craigslist disrupted classifieds, Facebook disrupted myspace, Google did it to Altavista and DuckDuckGo is doing it to Google (well, they’re dreaming about it anyway and I wish them luck).
So who is currently setting themselves up for disruption? The hardest part in taking on an incumbent is usually that the incumbent has had years to entrench themselves and that they may have a very solid network effect in place making it all but impossible to take them on.
The thing that can level the playing field and that can give you momentarily a window of opportunity to crawl through and get a chance when normally you would not even be able to dent the armour is a crisis. Every big company has moments of weakness and that’s when they are at their most vulnerable, like over-ripe plums waiting to fall from the tree. In part this stems from their internal sense of being invulnerable, they get sloppy and they have blind spots. So let’s analyze a bunch of the top contenders and point at their weaknesses:
Google Adsense. Google makes a ton of money off their ads, so much that they don’t give a damn about the publishers giving them the inventory. More and more publishers are completely fed up with this and would jump ship instantly if a viable alternative appeared. Beware, right from day 1 you’ll be the target of just about every shyster on the planet with a plan of action so ‘know your customer’ is going to be key. And that’s good because that is exactly where google fails.
Ebay. This blog post was quite prescient (I wrote it a while ago), but the events of the last week underline the complacency angle. Not only does ebay look terrible, it has a huge problem with scammers and now, on top of that it turns out that it was very lax with security. That’s one of those crisis moments that just might be bad enough to topple a giant.
LinkedIn. Linked in is safely entrenched in the business world. Or so they think. But I’m not on there and with me 100’s of thousands of others. I’m not on there because I don’t see the value of LinkedIn, I’m not on there because they are playing fast and loose with data and they spam you to death. If I’m going to be ‘the product’ at least be gracious about it. Linked in seems to believe they are too big to fail, and that their users can no longer do without them and that’s a vulnerability.
Flickr. Once the only really good solution for photo sharing in town (a part of that function has now been taken over by Facebook) Flickr is asking for some kick-ass competition. The site has not really thrived under Yahoo! stewardship (what ever did?) and has been steadily dropping in the rankings and in the favour with the audience.
Quora, stackoverflow etc. The one suffers from appropriation syndrome, the rest from inappropriatitis. Both leave me frustrated, on Quora half the content (donated freely by users) is now used to draw in visitors through search engines and then used to force them to log in to the service. If a log-in is not required, don’t force your users to do it. And on stackoverflow anything (ok, exaggaration here) that can’t be answered with a simple fact will get closed. Too many times did I have the exact same question as some former stackoverflow visitor, dropped the question into google only to land on a completely useless page. That’s an opportunity.