History of Web shows first-mover advantage isn't essential

The Internet is littered with once big names that were considered ubiquitous that have now either completely disappeared or faded away into obscurity.

The Internet is littered with once big names that were considered ubiquitous that have now either completely disappeared or faded away into obscurity.

Who remembers Netscape? It was most people's default Web browser back in the 90's before Microsoft got its act together with Internet Explorer and blew it out of the water. And what site did you use for search back then? Chances are AltaVista and Lycos were pretty high on your agenda. They were both incredibly popular search engines that were completely overtaken once Google came onto the market. I think they both still exist somewhere, but they are no longer serious players.

It's worth remembering that Google only really came to prominence after the dotcom crash in 2001 – it didn't play a big part in the boom, which was predicated on the fateful phrase “first-mover advantage.” Eager VC firms threw their money at all sorts of dodgy dotcom startups in the hope they could grab market share and dominate.

In more recent times, social networks such as Bebo and virtual worlds including Second Life have proved the fragility of new digital brands. Whereas Facebook, which was met with acute skepticism on launch and told it had no chance of building a sustainable business and would remain a hangout for college kids, has become a phenomenon that has even overhauled Google in terms of Web traffic.

So why is this relevant now? Well, Facebook has just introduced Facebook Places, a pretty shameless attempt to muscle in on the location-based territory that New York startup Foursquare has so far dominated. The Mark Zuckerberg-led social network hopes to leverage its scale to do to Foursquare what Microsoft once did to Netscape.

It's too early to say who will win this battle. My early thoughts are that the likes of Google and Facebook do best when they are leading, not following. And there will be more privacy issues ahead for Facebook to address with its new venture. But it has such scale and reach that the folks over at Foursquare must be a little bit worried about their new competition. As the aforementioned examples show, first-mover advantage isn't the be-all and end-all online.

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