On the Money

2015's disruptor class: Isaacson on Elon Musk, mobile payments

The Next disruptors
The Next disruptors

Mobile payments and Elon Musk are among several trends and innovators poised for a breakout year in 2015, according to one expert.

In an interview on CNBC, Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling Steve Jobs biography, predicts people who are "unbanked" in society will soon be able to make Internet purchases more easily. Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, said the lack of banking options available to some will prompt electronic payment systems to rise to the challenge.

"It takes four days to move money sometimes if it's just an average person [trying] to use things like checks and credit cards that have transaction costs," Isaacson said. Those inefficiencies will spur the continued rise of mobile payments and digital currencies, which will eventually disrupt the banking sector.

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An estimated 68 million U.S. citizens—and some 2.5 billion across the world—operate without access to a bank. Analysts say this market is ripe for the increasingly hot mobile payments sector. A recent study by the Federal Reserve found that many unbanked consumers are already using smartphones to process financial transactions.

"I'm looking for different ways that people will be able to just transfer money pretty quickly," Isaacson said.

Isaacson also sees growth in some forms of cybercurrency "building on the … bitcoin phase we had a few years ago." And the disruption to financial services won't just be limited to the U.S., he said.

"Globally, once you open up the market to the next billion people coming on line who can make cellphone text payments and that sort of thing, I think it changes the economy quite radically," Isaacson said

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Wendy's mobile payment app for iPhone
Source: iTunes

In his latest book, "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution," Isaacson chronicles the pioneers and visionaries whose discoveries over the past 175 years led to the invention of the computer.

In the search for the next technology leader, Isaacson sees continued innovation from a familiar entrepreneur, the co-founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

"Elon Musk is one of great innovators and disruptors of our time," said Isaacson, citing two technologies that will be in high demand given consumer preferences. "He's doing batteries, he's doing electric cars."

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Despite current low oil and gas prices, Isaacson thinks alternative sources of energy will continue to drive innovation, and change how drivers fuel up their vehicles. "It's no longer in our DNA to want to drive around in SUVs and Hummers and burn gasoline," he said.

Included in Isaacson's book is the work of Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, whom he called "a great innovator." However, those changing the face of technology don't necessarily need to hail from large corporations.

It's "not often a big company [or] an established company can be innovative and disruptive," Isaacson said. But with the development of trends including self-driving cars, and wearable technology, "I do like the way Google keeps looking for ways" to shake up consumer technology.

As for future disruption on a longer time horizon, Isaacson is looking for big ideas from innovators working together.

After the explosive growth of Facebook, Twitter and new apps like Snapchat, the author hopes for more tech innovation in sectors beyond the traditional Silicon Valley route.

"We've had a lot of social media plays over the last 10 years; maybe over the next 10 years will involve things that are more substantive," he said. "Disruptive ways to use big data in health care to do pharmaceutical things that can't be done ,,, in a garage, or a dorm room, but will take collaborative innovators."

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