Who will be the sole provider of all that you desire? Which company’s services will you “hire” to address your every internet-enabled whim? It sounds absurd, but this is the essence of the battle between the big four tech giants—oh and Microsoft too, but these days Microsoft is mostly an enterprise company.
Amazon is apparently working on two different smartphones, one of which has a 3D screen. The company is also supposedly developing an audio-only streaming device and a set-top box for your television, according to the latest Wall Street Journal report. That’s an awful lot for a company that only announced its first tablet fewer than two years ago.
Take a step back—in the flurry of recent announcements from all US tech giants, what is the one thing tying them together? Arguably, it’s a shared vision.
They all want to be the uber-company.
That is, a company which has a complete user experience with the following elements:
- Hardware — mobile device(s)
- An app ecosystem
- Streaming media
- Cloud services—at the least, as a delivery mechanism for the above
And why do these companies aspire to be competitive in all four of these areas? There are two reasons: The first is that a customer who starts using your hardware is more likely to (or may have no choice but to) use your software, and the reverse is also frequently true. All four of these companies (and, yes, Microsoft) have created their own “walled gardens,” which means that once you’ve bought media or apps from them, or uploaded data into their mutually incompatible services, you’re stuck. That’s by design: Having invested so much time and money into their ecosystems, the energy barrier for a consumer to switch to a competitor is so high that it gives each company room to maneuver and, if they have an advantage, maybe even gain market share. Ecosystem lock-in is like a ratchet on the size of your base of customers: Even if you mess up once in a while, it’s hard for your market to shrink, and every chance you differentiate, you can grab a few more people.
When trying to rationalize the actions of all the tech giants, what gets confusing is how each company aspiring for our attention has different strengths, weaknesses and predilections. They’re like siblings, each forced onto different paths, even if their ultimate goals are the same. (There is also an element of often-overlooked symbiosis going on here, for example how Apple depends on Google to make cloud services excellent on the iPhone, and Google needs Apple’s rabid fanbase because they’re so valuable to advertisers.)
If we look at what each of these companies offers, and what they’ve recently announced, it’s clear that they are all trying to shore up or launch services that make them competitive in each of the areas I mentioned earlier. Here’s a less than comprehensive breakdown (feel free to suggest any I missed):
- Apple’s iPhones and iPads
- Google’s Nexus line of tablets and smartphones, as well as the forthcoming X-phone from Motorola
- Amazon’s Kindle Fire and reportedly forthcoming phones, set-top box and audio streaming device
2. App ecosystem
- Apple’s App store
- Google Play
- Facebook App Center
- Amazon Appstore
3. Streaming Media (and books)
- iTunes, iBooks
- Google Play, YouTube
- Facebook’s half-hearted attempt to offer movie rentals
- Amazon Prime (movie rentals), Amazon MP3, and Amazon’s publishing empire
4. Cloud services
- Google Drive, Gmail, etc.
- Facebook’s email, messaging and photo storage
- Amazon’s enterprise web services
Broken down like this, it’s clear that one of these companies is not like the other: Facebook has been the most reluctant to expand beyond its core mission of being a giant social network, or really a platform for mobile ads. If I’d dropped Microsoft into this analysis instead of Facebook, it would have been an even better fit—Microsoft’s Windows is the original app ecosystem, the company has always partnered on hardware, is making moves into content with its reported acquisition of Nook, and has cloud services that are less popular than, but in many respects on par with Google’s.
Indeed, Microsoft’s slavish copying of both Apple and Google—despite its failure to gain much market share against either—is perhaps the clearest illustration of what all of these companies believe should be a part of any respectable tech giant.
The future of America’s tech giants is a protracted cold war.
So where are all of these companies going? Considering that they are not only competitors, but also in some ways interdependent, it’s hard to see a future in which there are rapid swings in any one company’s fortunes. Each is better than all of the others in at least one important industry: Apple’s strength remains hardware and—for now—apps, Google is the champion of cloud services, Amazon has retail to fall back on, and Facebook has more than a billion users signed up to its social network.
Thus, in their effort to become the one tech firm to rule them all, many of the places where these four (OK, five if we include Microsoft) firms overlap are, at best, skirmishes. Like the US and Russia fighting proxy wars through smaller countries, each invests in or acquires smaller firms who are battling each other much more ferociously.
But even in cold wars, there is danger. In their quest to expand, each company risks alienating partners on which it depends, or otherwise upsetting the balance of powers. By releasing its own phones through its subsidiary Motorola, for example, Google, for example, is pushing Samsung to find alternatives to Google’s mobile operating system, Android. If Apple can ever get its act together in cloud services—and there are signs it’s at least trying—it could push Google to stop providing iPhone users with such excellent access to Google’s services. And even Facebook Home on Android phones is an obvious attempt to capture the attention that Google would no doubt rather focus on its own services and apps.
Successful technology companies are constantly disrupting themselves because if they don’t, someone else will do whatever they’re not doing, and take away all their customers. Plus, if you’re sitting on a ton of cash, or investor capital, what better use for it than to try to become the uber-company?
But as Carl Sagan observed, in all ecosystems, extinction is the rule and not the exception. Whatever existential threats are out there—to markets in which each of these companies play, if not to the entire firms—these companies are trying their hardest to outrun them. Hence the endless game of copying each others’ best ideas.