This article was published on September 8, 2011

The 10 Greatest Disruptive Thinkers in Technology

The 10 Greatest Disruptive Thinkers in Technology
Martin Bryant
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Martin Bryant


Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

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They’re the people who dare to do things differently and change our view of the world and our perception of what’s possible. Here, in no particular order, are the people we’ve named as the 10 greatest disruptive thinkers in the recent history of technology.

Sure, we could go all the way back to Gutenberg’s printing press if we wanted to, but we’ve decided to concentrate on the last 30 years. Is there anyone we’ve missed? Leave a comment and let us know.

Tim Berners Lee

Tim Berners Lee’s great invention, the World Wide Web, enabled Internet use to take off as information was suddenly presented in an easily accessible, linked form for the first time.

We explored the history of the Web here on the day of its twentieth anniversary, but perhaps the greatest, most disruptive part of Berners Lee’s invention was the decision to make it free and open to all. It’s hard to imagine a world where people would be required to pay a license fee to use the World Wide Web. With a pricetag attached, it’s just about certain that it wouldn’t have taken off anywhere near as quickly as it did and we probably wouldn’t be living in anywhere near as connected a world as we do today. [Image source]

Jeff Bezos

In founding Amazon, Jeff Bezos was the first to make online retail work at a huge scale. Through smart use of supply chains and efficient ordering practices, Amazon could offer first books, and then a huge variety of other products, at prices which beat the competition both on and off the Internet.

Bezos has continued to disrupt the technology industry, with low-cost, commoditized cloud computing and a fast-developing online content delivery ecosystem which includes Android apps, MP3s, streaming movies and a cloud-based music player – not to mention by far the most successful ebook offering in the form of Kindle. [Image source]

Bill Gates

During his tenure at Microsoft, Bill Gates arguably did more to transform the way we think of computers than anyone else. Windows grew to become the only operating system many people ever used, and the ability to use Microsoft Office is seen as an essential skill for working life in many parts of the world.

While some called his business practices overly aggressive, and they have been found to be anticompetitive in some cases, there’s no doubt that the dominance of Windows brought a level of stability to the computing industry that it had not enjoyed before, allowing use of computers to grow to the point where they became less a luxury and more a necessary utility. [Image source]

Tony Hsieh

Another online retail magnate, Tony Hseih’s role as CEO of Zappos is notable for its concentration on customer service and employee happiness – something unusual in online enterprises.

Tactics such as offering free shipping both ways and a 365-day return policy have helped Zappos become a popular choice with customers.

Meanwhile, unconventional HR policies, like choosing people who consider themselves lucky and offering new hires a lump sum payment to quit after a week (to make sure that he only has staff that really want to work there), have helped establish a reportedly happy and motivated workforce. It’s all helped Zappos go from zero to over $1 billion in gross merchandise sales in under ten years. [Image source]

Arianna Huffington

The fact that Huffington is the only woman on this list may dismay some, and we’re sure that some of you will have alternative ideas of who should make the list, but there’s little doubt that she’s had a huge influence over the way online publishing is viewed and practiced.

With The Huffington Post, she mobilised an army of unpaid bloggers to create a left-leaning news and opinion content machine, generating vast numbers of pageviews and attracting millions of dollars of investment. Acquired by AOL in February this year, Huffington’s company has continued to stand as a major rival to established media brands online and has recently expanded to the UK and Canada in an attempt to shake up the news market in those countries too.

She hasn’t been without controversy though, following the AOL acquisition, a multi-million dollar lawsuit was filed on behalf of unpaid bloggers who felt that they deserved a share of the money The Huffington Post received in the AOL deal. [Image source]

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs’ recent resignation as CEO of Apple has served to refresh our memory about just how much he’s done to change the technology industry over and over again.

The original Macintosh was a major leap forward in computer user experience, but it was Jobs’ work after he returned to Apple in the late 1990s that was arguably the most disruptive, influencing changes in not only the computer industry but across the entertainment industry too.

From the iMac onwards, Jobs made us all consider the visual design of computers and other gadgets much more carefully, and almost every Apple design has led to copycat products with a similar look. His bold view of what Apple could be as a business led to such a shake-up in the music industry that his company became the leading digital music retailer, while the iPhone turned the mobile industry on its head, forcing established players to radically change their approaches. Some, such as Samsung, adapted well. Others, such as Nokia and RIM have been reeling ever since. [Image source]

Ray Kurzweil

Kuzweil is one of the world’s best-known futurists and has been hailed as “the ultimate thinking machine.” His work has covered topics such as transhumanism (the concept of extending the lifespan and expanding intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities of humans by means of emerging technologies), nanotechnolgy (microscopic machines that could transform the way we perform a wide range of tasks and event revolutionise healthcare) and the technological singularity (the idea of artificial intelligence surpassing the capabilities of human intelligence).

In 2009, Kuzweil launched the Singularity University in partnership with Google and the NASA Ames Research Center. This organisation’s goal is to train the brightest and the best from the private and public sectors with the knowledge and skills to be leaders in tackling humanity’s greatest challenges. [Image source]

Gordon Moore

Although he was the co-founder of technology giant Intel, Gordon Moore’s observation of the pace of development of computing hardware is what he is best known for. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

Despite Moore’s original prediction in 1965 that it would hold true for ten years, it has continued right up to the present day, and the semi-conductor industry actually measures performance and prepares its long-term planning for R&D based on Moore’s Law. [Image source]

Larry Page and Sergey Brin

As co-founders of Google, Page and Brin (we’ll count them as one for the purposes of this list) transformed the way we thought about the Web – and that was just the start. The idea of using reputation and relevance of Web pages as a currency for deciding what we wanted to see was revolutionary in the late 1990s, and instantly improved the quality of results that users demanded from their search engines.

As Google grew, so did the number of innovations the company pioneered. Its ‘20% time’, allowing engineers a fifth of their working week to pursue their own projects, led to products as significant as Gmail and Google News. This working practice encouraged innovation within the company in a way that had not been seen before.

The importance of ‘free’ is another disruptive concept from the world of Page and Brin. Google concentrates on advertising as its main revenue stream, with the idea that anything it can do to make getting online faster and easier, from as many places as possible is a good thing. This means that it offers almost all its products without charge, and has provided free WiFi in location such as airports at times. Google regularly lobbies for free and open access to the Internet, particularly in the USA. More than any other company, Google has seen openness as more beneficial than closed systems. [Image source]

Howard Rheingold

A prominent thinker on future technological developments, Rheingold’s influential works have included books on virtual communities and virtual reality, explaining these concepts to wide audiences and inspiring further research in the fields (in fact, he’s credited with inventing the term ‘virtual community’). His influential 2002 title Smart Mobs explored how developing technology could help augment collective intelligence amongst groups of people.

Rheingold later became a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto and is now an academic, teaching at universities in California. [Image source]

Is there anyone we’ve missed? Anyone you disagree with? Leave a comment and let us know.

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