Lessons from 5 Fallen Tech Empires over Last Decade


Life, companies and products each have their ebbs and flows. Some products that were popular towards the end of 2010 have either greatly diminished in impact or have become obsolete. I was reminded that while technology product consumption spreads faster today, like a gust of wind, it can go away just as quickly.

Here are some of the products which reflect the tech zeitgeist of the last decade but didn’t quite stand the test of time and ended up being a footnote in the tech history

Firefox and Internet Explorer

The browsers have defined the internet for decades since the creation of the Mozilla in 1994. As a graduate student in the US, I remember being one of the earliest users of the Mosaic browser. Mosaic morphed into Netscape and dominated the 1990s, followed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) and Firefox in the 2000s. In 2008, IE had almost 60% of the world’s browser market share. Incredibly, despite not having the financial clout of Microsoft or Google, Mozilla’s Firefox was trailing in a distant second place with roughly one-third of the market.

Then, Chrome happened.

How did Firefox and IE lose the plot? Firefox tried to be like Chrome and lost its identity and its technology edge. It had better privacy features and was open source. However, Chrome was faster, slicker, more mobile friendly and modern. IE didn’t make the shift from the static web to more richer, web applications. They also allegedly disbanded the original IE team early so the innovations stopped. Of course, I would be remiss in stating that Chrome had Google’s distribution might behind it. Today, Chrome is the defacto browser. As a side note, I believe Sundar Pichai’s meteoric rise in Google to CEO and now to Alphabet CEO started with his bet on Chrome.

Blackberry and Nokia Phones

Everyone was crazy about owning a Blackberry in the early 2000s. It was a status symbol. Blackberry made the phone indispensable for business professionals with two defining features;  business email while on-the-go and a keyboard. Even Barack Obama, then a Senator from Illinois, leveraged Blackberry during his campaign and even during his first term as President.

At its peak, Nokia was one of the biggest companies in the world and had a larger budget than Finland! Nokia phones were not just for the business people, it was for the masses with customisable ringtones, messaging and pre loaded games. Everyone wanted to get a cellular Nokia to get connected to the world. You could make phone calls on-the-go and not much else.  While Blackberry dominated the business market, Nokia ruled the roost with the consumer.

Then, the iPhone and Android led to the smartphone revolution.

Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007 and led the higher end applications ecosystem. When Google bought Android for less than US $100M and open sourced it immediately,  it might have been the best technology acquisition of all time. An open source, mobile operating system has defined not just Google’s fortunes but all of our lives over this decade. Blackberry and Nokia never got off their focus on Hardware. Nokia controlled Symbian Operating System and Java Mobile (J2ME) was supported by Sun Microsystems. Both Mobile software stacks were stuck in the dark ages.

Through Android, Google brought the focus on the mobile operating system. It was fast and easy for OEMs to build phones around Android. The business model also changed with  mobile advertising and application stores giving an easy and better way for developers to monetise their applications. Google and Apple took over the entire market – Google through its focus on the mass market and Apple by focussing on the premium segment.

The Yahoo Media Empire – Portal, Mail, Messenger, Flickr, Directory, Q&A and more.

Yahoo was a media emperor through the 1990s and much of the 2000s. They dominated with Media, Messaging and Entertainment. While they were still one of the largest players by monthly active users towards the end of the last decade, they did not have any moats on any offerings.

They were usurped by Gmail on email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google News on News Aggregation, and messaging apps like Facebook Chat turned Facebook messenger, and Whatsapp started to make inroads there.

Social Networking: Orkut, Google Plus

Orkut was big in India, Brazil and a few emerging markets in the late 2000s.  In fact, to get an ISP, people would ask for an “Orkut” connection and not an internet connection.

Then, it’s nemesis Facebook took off!

Facebook focussed on tapping into, and perhaps accelerating, expressing a personal identity on the web and also enabled connections with others. Orkut was inherently more about community than about individuals. I recollect Facebook being at 100M global users in early 2009. It had a meteoric rise to 500M users in a couple of years. Since the network effect was quite strong, they went after the “western” facing Indian users – students bound for US universities or Indians who had friends abroad. The product was also much superior with respect to photo sharing and more. In general, given the Search DNA, Google did not get senior level management attention for social networking. As we would see later, it would have further failed attempts through various product offerings like Google Plus.

Dominance of Mobile Operators – Walled Gardens, Premium SMS, HelloTunes

Prior to ubiquitous access to the Internet, the mobile operators yielded a lot of distribution power. They leveraged this power by offering Walled Gardens for content, games, caller tunes and other value added services (VAS).  They would couple these services along with the ISP or mobile data offering. These offerings were sub-par but there was no choice either for the consumer or for the ecosystem to provide for better offerings.

Then, Android, iOS and cheap, ubiquitous data happened. 

The open and accessible ecosystem led to a rapid development of innovative mobile apps. With Android OEMs beginning to make inroads into the market, application developers started delivering best-of-breed products to starved ISP customers. The transition to mobile data and the app ecosystem was rapid and brutal. Eventually, cheaper mobile data plans have further decelerated the significance of Telcos.

Looking through all of these, the common thread across all of this is adapting to, or driving change. There are 3 key big drivers of change :

  • Technology breakthroughs are getting faster by the year. The consumer internet, browsers, evolution of 3G, smartphones, mobile operating systems, application development platforms, all led to serious new innovations. If the incumbents were not able to jump on to the new bandbagwon – either organically, or through acquisitions, they would likely miss the plots.
  • Consumers have been getting more comfortable with adopting new technology as fast as it evolves. Unlike the last millenia, it is not uncommon now for a platform to get to a few 100s of millions of users in a few years. Startups with innovative products can get rapid distribution sooner than incumbents can latch on the new set of behaviors.
  • Business Model Innovations have made it cheaper and more accessible to provide innovations to large numbers of consumers and businesses alike. One needs to keep an eye on what might make the incumbent’s business model less relevant if not obsolete. In an ideal world, much like we invest in technology innovation, companies would do well to invest in disrupting their own business models before it is too late.

Author: Amit Somani. Amit is a Managing Partner at Prime Venture Partners, an early stage Venture Capital firm based out of Bangalore, India. Prime VP invests in category creating, early stage companies founded by rock star teams. Prior, Amit has held leadership positions at Makemytrip, Google and IBM. He is also deeply engaged with the early stage startup ecosystem in India and actively volunteers with iSpirt, TiE and NASSCOM. He has been named as LinkedIn’s Top Voices in 2018 and 2019 and blogs here. He also tweets at @amitsomani