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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
The Tech Lab: Niklas Zennstrom
Niklas Zennstrom
Niklas Zennstrom co-founded Skype with Janus Friis
In the first of a new series in which the world's leading thinkers outline their personal vision of where technology could be leading us, the co-founder of net telephony service Skype, Niklas Zennstrom explains how the collaborative aspect of the internet will shape the technologies of the future.

The internet communications industry is probably the most disruptive industry in terms of technology development today. The industry has grown, for the most part, in line with what people want to do online.

And its growth is driven by a combination of innovation from the companies that are creating the software, and from user experience.

Innovation tends to be the catalyst. However, what people like doing online tells us a lot about how they like communicating and accessing and sharing information with one another.

One of the common denominating factors behind usage is what the technology gives the individual in return for their endeavours.

A technology platform that is based on a solid, intellectual, R&D driven culture has the opportunity to thrive among a hungry community that wants life made easier.

For me, a disruptive technology is only worthwhile if it gives people something they didn't have or couldn't do before

I've spent most of my professional life working in the communications industry. I've seen many technologies come and go.

The ones that fail tend to be too hard to use and impenetrable to the average consumer.

And they fail because the benefit is often overshadowed by the hype. Many potentially great technologies disappear because, quite simply, they do not give people what they want.

Never-ending quest

That's the key to it really. I am passionate about technology but it is not the never-ending quest to make things smaller, faster, lighter or cheaper that gets me motivated. The sort of new technology that I think about isn't usually born in a boardroom, a technology campus, the back of a garage or as a result of thousands of marketing focus groups.

It tends to originate from a simple idea that can be easily explained to anyone who isn't interested in how you make the technology work but more importantly, interested in what it does.

Skype screenshot
Skype was first launched in April 2003
What intrigues me in particular, are disruptive technologies. Disruption can come in many guises. It is at its most powerful when it comes in the form of a software platform that genuinely alters the status quo for the better.

Disruptive technologies are designed to change the way people interact, work and spend their leisure time.

And disruption - if it's working - makes it even easier and more valuable. So when you're using Skype to make a free or very cheap voice call, letting you see the person you are talking to is an additional benefit.

Simply put, a disruptive technology gives you what you want and at the same time, a better experience.

It sounds so straightforward. However, the exciting part is when you try and build a business on the back of this disruption. It's not always as easy as it sounds.

As an active entrepreneur in the internet communications industry, you might assume what I am most passionate about is the core technology itself.

I am sure that some people find it easy to picture me in a laboratory swapping lines of code with teams of developers or re-designing the Internet on the back of an envelope when sitting in the back of a cab.

But the truth is that I am incredibly attracted to disruptive technology as a whole, where the innovation behind it strips away social hierarchies or monopolies and helps to make the world a smaller place. You can't ignore it, you have to embrace it.

For me, a disruptive technology is only worthwhile if it gives people something they didn't have or couldn't do before. Take mobile phones, for example. The ability to make a phone call on the move, no matter where you happen to be, was a simple but revolutionary step forward in the way we keep in touch with one another.

Single out

If I was to single out where the next big idea is going to come from, from what I've seen so far, it will be driven by what consumers want.

And that's why the internet has been such a fantastic stimulus for many new and disruptive technologies. And those that have been the most successful are the ones which are fun and easy to use.

My instincts tell me that sharing knowledge is a catalyst behind adoption of a new technology

The internet is a great platform for collaboration. It lets people and businesses all over the world communicate and trade with one another.

It is a wholly liberating medium. The internet has been incredibly disruptive across many industries - from retail to manufacturing to finance to entertainment.

Today, for example, over one million people now make their living on eBay, which is astounding.

Real disruption ripples out across the market and spawns new businesses. For me, it's about taking a new leap forward. And a leap forward in technological and economic terms.

And this leap forward can achieve so many things when it reaches momentum.

However, it's important not to confuse disruption in an industry with destruction.

Average consumer

True disruption prompts an evolution in itself - and one which gives more choice to the average consumer.

For example, when Henry Ford invented the mass production car, it didn't mean that other ways of travelling would disappear. It simply meant that people could choose how they wished to travel.

And disruption is not about anarchy either. Setting up a business that gives people something for free is not enough to succeed in the long term. The free proposition is obviously compelling but it's actually all about doing something differently. And doing that 'something' to alter the status quo and take the industry to a new dimension.

Disruption brings forward the process of economic evolution. The technology platform has to develop alongside this. And this is what the Internet has done and continues to do.

It's easy to get carried away however. We need to keep what disruption is capable of in context.

People continue to get excited about new things such as Web 2.0 but to me, this is no more than a label.

It's almost impossible to predict how we will use the internet to communicate with one another in the next five to 10 years and I don't have a crystal ball.

But my instincts tell me that sharing knowledge is a catalyst behind adoption of a new technology.

The more we can do on the internet and the more it helps us to stay in touch or progress a business idea, the more attractive and useful it will be.




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