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Is AI the New Dot-Com?

Will the Growth of AI Parallel Dot-Com's Boom & Bust or Cloud's More Steady Ascent? When Should Companies Invest in Developing Their AI Future?

Pepper Foster

The late 1990s were marked by a frenzied surge of investments in dot-com companies, driven by the promise of the internet revolutionizing business and personal life. The NASDAQ soared as companies with ".com" in their names saw their valuations skyrocket, often without substantial revenues or clear paths to profitability. This period, now referred to as the dot-com boom, saw the emergence of many companies eager to capitalize on the internet’s potential.

However, by the early 2000s, the bubble burst. The NASDAQ plummeted, shedding almost 80% of its value from its peak​​. High-profile casualties included Pets.com, Webvan, and eToys, which were unable to sustain operations as investor confidence waned and capital dried up. 

However, despite the carnage, this period also laid the groundwork for future internet giants and for the massive disruption and decimation of the retail, music, TV, travel, and financial services industries. Having weathered the storm and refined their business models, companies like Amazon, Apple,  Facebook, Netflix, Google, Expedia, Airbnb, Vanguard, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity leveraged dot-com technology and ideas to become the dominant players across their industries.  

The Current AI Landscape: Hype, Investment, and Potential

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) is experiencing a surge of interest and investment reminiscent of the dot-com boom. Companies that announce AI tech or investments are seeing their stock price soar just like the dot-coms did in the nineties. Just like the internet before it, AI promises to transform and massively disrupt whole industries. Companies are therefore racing to develop AI-driven solutions and attracting significant venture capital and corporate investment.

However, the AI sector faces challenges similar to those of the dot-com era. There is a risk of overhyping capabilities and underestimating the time required for widespread adoption. While there are promising applications in areas like healthcare, finance, and autonomous vehicles, many AI startups are still refining their business models and demonstrating tangible value.

The Rise of Cloud Computing: A Steady Ascent

In contrast to the volatile dot-com cycle, the growth of cloud computing since the early 2000s has followed a more consistent trajectory, often described as a J curve. The initial phase was marked by gradual adoption as businesses recognized the benefits of scalable, on-demand computing resources. Early cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors like Salesforce.com disrupted traditional on-premise solutions such as Siebel, offering greater flexibility and lower costs.

The infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) market, led by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and later joined by Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, further accelerated the shift to the cloud. These platforms provided robust, scalable infrastructure, enabling businesses of all sizes to deploy and manage applications more efficiently. The cloud's growth has been driven by continuous innovation, expanding capabilities, and widespread adoption across industries.

AI: B2B vs. B2C Adoption

A critical question for AI is whether it will follow the B2B-centric path of cloud computing or the B2C-focused trajectory of the dot-com era. Currently, AI appears to be primarily a B2B technology, with businesses integrating AI into their operations to improve efficiency, customer service, and decision-making. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google are providing AI tools and platforms that other businesses use to develop AI-driven applications.

However, there is also significant potential for AI to impact B2C markets. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, recommendation systems in e-commerce, and personalized content delivery on social media are just a few examples of AI-driven consumer applications. The long-term balance between B2B and B2C adoption will depend on the evolution of AI technology and its integration into everyday life.

Technology Stack Comparisons: AI vs. Cloud vs. Dot-Com

From a tech stack perspective, AI is probably more analogous to cloud computing than dot-com. Like cloud technology, AI provides an underlying service that other technologies and applications build upon. The AI stack includes data collection and processing, machine learning algorithms, and deployment platforms, much like the cloud stack comprises infrastructure, platforms, and SaaS applications.

However, AI also shares characteristics with the dot-com era in terms of consumer-facing applications and the potential for rapid, disruptive innovation. AI’s foundation on data and computing power, aligns more closely with the cloud’s technological advancements but the application of AI in consumer and business-facing applications will be just like the way the internet and dot-com ideas were applied over the last 25 years. 

Market Leaders and Future Outlook

In the near term, current tech giants like Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Meta, along with newer AI leaders like OpenAI and Anthropic seem poised to lead the AI market. They have a decent head start and are rapidly leveraging their existing technology, infrastructure, and expertise to press their advantage and gain market awareness and share. 

However, the medium to long-term landscape will see different companies emerge as the market leaders, similar to the way Microsoft and Google replaced Netscape and Yahoo. In addition, the established consumer-oriented players like Amazon and Apple and the companies that already have a significant market position in traditional industries like healthcare, financial services, travel, consumer products, manufacturing, etc. and work out how to deploy AI technology to disrupt, revolutionize, and gain a competitive advantage will be the true AI market leaders.   

AI: The Market Defining Tech of the Next 25 Years

While the growth of AI shares elements of both the dot-com boom and the cloud’s J curve, its long-term success is almost guaranteed. Given the investments being made and the potentially massive benefits, even if there is a bubble and crash, AI will still be the market-defining tech of the next 25 years. Just like the Internet was for the first quarter of this century after the dot-com bubble burst. 

It is therefore imperative that companies figure out how to integrate AI into their core operations, build strategic partnerships with AI startups, invest in AI research and development, and work out how their industries will be disrupted. Because, if they don’t, somebody else will. 

But, There’s No Need To Panic

The first to market isn’t always the winner. In fact, they often aren’t. Being a fast follower might be the best strategy. Charles Schwab and Fidelity weren’t the first online brokerages, Google wasn’t the first search engine, Facebook wasn’t the first social media company, and Apple didn’t produce the first MP3 players or smartphones. 

Take the time to analyze and navigate the complexities, threats, and opportunities presented by AI now so you can invest prudently and your business will be positioned to lead in the AI-driven future.

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