2014 CNBC Disruptor 50

13 pioneers that forever changed consumers' lives

Iconic upstarts that upended industry

Justin Pumfrey | Iconica | Getty Images

While the fast pace of technology can seemingly shake up our daily routines every few weeks, seismic changes are actually fairly rare.

Most companies specialize in evolution rather than revolution, so when a real paradigm shifter appears, it's worthy of note. Those are the sorts of firms that become icons in their industry, but becoming a disruptive force can make them a target for other companies looking to institute change of their own.

Here are a handful of businesses that have not only made people's lives easier but upended industries in the process.

By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 19 June 2014

Apple

People pass by the construction wall of the new Apple store at Omotesando in Tokyo, Japan.
Getty Images

Arguably the leader in corporate disruption, Apple has changed the way we live in several ways, starting in the 1970s, when it introduced the personal computer. More recently, the iPod and iTunes store reinvented how we listened to music. Apple's take on the smartphone was so different that it quickly dominated the market—and set the standard for others to follow. And the iPad is one of the leading reasons laptop sales have stagnated in recent years. (IDC expects PC sales to continue declining through at least 2018, due to pressure from tablets.)

Since the 2011 death of Steve Jobs, critics have groused that the company is no longer the disruptive force it once was, but current CEO Tim Cook has waved off those condemnations, saying Apple is working on several new hardware products that could be just as revolutionary as the iPod and iPhone.

Facebook

Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There's a constant debate about whether social networks are actually making us less social in real life, but the 1.28 billion monthly active users of Facebook don't seem too concerned. The site has become a de facto way for people to fill in others about life's small moments and to reconnect with long-lost friends.

Between status updates and its encouragement to share online posts with others, the company has literally changed how we communicate with each other. And with its recent acquisition of virtual reality pioneer Oculus, it seems determined to keep changing it in the years to come.

Google

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Google not only revolutionized the Web search field, it continued on a path that ultimately reworked how we see and interact with the Internet on a daily basis. Its Gmail division forced other Web-based mail providers, like Yahoo, to offer virtually unlimited storage space. Chrome has become the most widely adopted browser among Internet users (with 48.5 percent of the online market, according to StatCounter). And ABI reports Android phones had a 44 percent market share in the first quarter, a 24 percent improvement over a year ago.

Google's just as active buying companies that are changing people's lives, including YouTube and Nest, makers of the smart thermostat. And, through its investment arm, it has stakes in everything from Uber to mobile gaming giant Kabam.

Netflix

People scoffed when Reid Hastings launched a DVD-by-mail service in 1999. They rolled their eyes when he talked about streaming being the future of home video delivery in 2007. And a few expressed doubt when he announced Netflix was getting into the original content business. Today no one's laughing.

Netflix has reinvented how people watch movies and TV, taking out some competitors like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster and forcing others (like Amazon and Hulu) to adapt to its style of play. It has received an Academy Award nomination for one of its original productions. And it boasts a subscriber count over 33 millionan increase of 9 million people in 18 months. Those numbers have helped send the company's share prices well above the $400 mark this year.

Craigslist

A man uses Craigslist to help find a job.
Ken James | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The effect Craigslist had on newspaper classifieds has been well documented, but for end users it has been just as impactful. Whether you're trying to sell a household good you have no use for, looking for companionship or trying to find a job, the site has become the default starting point.

Today more than 60 million people use Craigslist each month, and the company has over 700 local sites in 70 countries.

Amazon

An employee stacks boxes filled with merchandise for shipment at the Amazon.com Inc. distribution center in Phoenix, Ariz.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Amazon's biggest achievement, by far, has been changing how people shop online. From its roots as an online bookstore to its evolution into a "get virtually anything" hub, the company has become a viable threat to big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. Similarly, the introduction of Amazon Prime, with its two-day shipping, has changed people's expectations about delivery time. (That service currently has at least 20 million subscribers, according to a note from Macquarie's Ben Schachter in January.)

Amazon isn't stopping there, though. While it's not the paradigm shift of its retail arm, the company is branching out into the entertainment business, competing against Netflix's original productions and Apple's tablets and TV set-top box.

Wikipedia

Lionel Bonaventure | AFP | Getty Images

It's no secret that the Internet is our go-to source for quick information these days. But increasingly, people are popping directly to Wikipedia. This editable electronic encyclopedia was the Web's 10th most popular destination in April 2014, according to Comscore. (Wikipedia internal data shows those visitors requested nearly 21 billion pages.) And 495 million people visited the site in March.

The community nature of the site makes its accuracy questionable sometimes, but that hasn't stopped users from making it the go-to spot for a quick fact check.

TiVo

A TiVo Inc. Stream device is displayed at Pepcom DigitalFocus in New York.
Scott Eelis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Every time you pause a live TV program, skip past the commercials or automatically record a series (rather than manually setting up the recording times of each episode), you've got TiVo to thank. As the inventor of the DVR in 1999, TiVo surplanted the VCR in people's homes, forever changing the home-entertainment business.

It wasn't long, though, before other companiesincluding cable giants—followed suit, which moved TiVo from the pack leader to one of the underdogs. Unable to secure enough key long-term partnerships and stubbornly sticking to its premium pricing model, the company lost traction with consumers. It's still a player in the DVR industry today, with 4.5 million subscribers, but it's not the king of the hill many would have expected 10 years ago.

Pandora

Patrick Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Digital music retailers supplanted the record store. But these days, streaming-music services are starting to steal the spotlight. Digital music sales decreased for the first time in 2013, with digital single-track sales dropping from 1.34 billion units to 1.26 billion units (a 5.7 percent fall), according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Pandora was the trendsetter in the streaming field, helping set the standard for other companies. It gave music fans the chance to discover new artists, bypassing the playlists of radio conglomerates. That quickly led to similar companies, such as Spotfiy and Rhapsody. Today the service has 76 million users, who listened for 1.7 billion hours in April 2014 and boasts a market cap of more than $5 billion.

Square

Square, a credit card reader, is arranged on an Apple iPhone.
Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Not too long ago, many small merchants were unable to accept credit cards, due to the size of their business and fees charged by the card companies. Square changed the game, letting anyone—from food truck owners to mom-and-pop shops—accept any major credit card by plugging a small device into their iPhone or iPad.

That has made it easier for consumers to shop and helped fuel the "buy local" movement. Square, which was founded in 2009 by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and is considering an IPO, is expected to process $30 billion in transactions this year.

Magellan

The Mitac International Corp. Magellan SmartGPS is displayed for a photograph in San Francisco, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Today we take that electronic voice in our car that tells us where to turn for granted, but it wasn't that long ago that drivers had to pull over and study a map to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. Founded in 1986, Magellan helped lead the charge in automotive GPS systems, eventually being purchased in 2009 by MiTAC.

Now smartphones with built-in navigation programs are quickly becoming the default method people rely on to maneuver their way around town, but without Magellan (and competitors like Garmin), we could still be figuring out how to refold those maps.

BlackBerry

The BlackBerry logo sits on the screen of a BlackBerry smartphone.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Long before we were walking around with our noses in our smartphones, many people were slaves to their BlackBerries. The combination of a phone with mobile mail delivery and instant messaging was ideally suited for the fast-paced business world and quickly became popular with always-connected consumers as well.

At its peak, in the fall of 2010, the company had 21 million users and a 43 percent share. In 2013 that market share dropped to 3.8 percent, and the company's chief value is believed to be in its patent portfolio. But its legacy can't be touched.

Tesla

Pictured here is an older Tesla Model S. Tesla’s Model S P100D with Ludicrous mode will use the same basic Model S body, but will have 100 kW/h battery, the Ludicrous mode hardware and a different badge.
Source: Tesla Motors

Tesla, frankly, hasn't really changed consumers' lives yet, but it seems poised to. Toyota's Prius hybrid caught on with consumers as gas prices soared in the late '90s and early 2000s. Tesla's vehicles forego gas altogether, running solely on electricity, and they move as fast as (or faster than) a traditional car. (The Roadster goes from zero to 60 mph in under 4 seconds, with a top speed of 125 mph.)

The manufacturer sold 22,477 cars in 2013, up from just 3,100 the year before. And since the Roadster's introduction, many auto manufacturers, including BMW, Ford and Chevy, have followed suit with their own electric cars. It's still a very small segment of the total vehicles on the road, but in a tech-crazed world it could be the next big shakeup.