retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There is a terrific, 7,000+ word story in the November issue of Fast Company that looks at what it says is the coming and inevitable battle between four technological behemoths - Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. It would be a mistake to try to summarize it here; rather, here are some excerpts that hopefully will tease you into reading. (A link to the full story is below.)

• “To state this as clearly as possible: The four American companies that have come to define 21st-century information technology and entertainment are on the verge of war. Over the next two years, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will increasingly collide in the markets for mobile phones and tablets, mobile apps, social networking, and more. This competition will be intense. Each of the four has shown competitive excellence, strategic genius, and superb execution that have left the rest of the world in the dust.”

• “There was a time, not long ago, when you could sum up each company quite neatly: Apple made consumer electronics, Google ran a search engine, Amazon was a web store, and Facebook was a social network. How quaint that assessment seems today ... Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google don't recognize any borders; they feel no qualms about marching beyond the walls of tech into retailing, advertising, publishing, movies, TV, communications, and even finance. Across the economy, these four companies are increasingly setting the agenda. Bezos, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Page look at the business world and justifiably imagine all of it funneling through their servers. Why not go for everything? And in their competition, each combatant is getting stronger, separating the quartet further from the rest of the pack.”

• “It is certainly possible to decode the Fab Four's big-picture strategic ambitions: Over the next few years, each will infiltrate, digitize, and revolutionize every corner of your life, taking a slice out of each transaction that results. This is a vision shared by all four, and it hinges on three interrelated ideas.

First, each company has embraced what Jobs has branded the ‘post-PC world’ - a vision of daily life that is enabled by, and comes to depend on, smartphones, tablets, and other small, mobile, easy-to-use computers. Each of these companies has already benefited more than others from this proliferation of mobile, a shift that underlies their extraordinary gains in revenue, cash reserves, and market cap ... The second idea is a function of the fact that these post-PC devices encourage and facilitate consumption, in just about every form. So each of these giants will deepen their efforts to serve up media--books, music, movies, TV shows, games, and anything else that might brighten your lonely hours (they're also socializing everything, so you can enjoy it with friends or meet new ones). But it's not just digital media; they will also make the consumption of everything easier. The new $79 Kindle, for example, isn't just a better reading device; it integrates Amazon's local-offers product. The Fire will be accompanied by a tablet-friendly redesign of that will make it easier for you to buy the physical goods that the company sells, from pet food to lawn mowers. Wherever and whenever you are online, they want to be there to assist you in your transaction.

“All of our activity on these devices produces a wealth of data, which leads to the third big idea underpinning their vision. Data is like mother's milk for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Data not only fuels new and better advertising systems (which Google and Facebook depend on) but better insights into what you'd like to buy next (which Amazon and Apple want to know). Data also powers new inventions: Google's voice-recognition system, its traffic maps, and its spell-checker are all based on large-scale, anonymous customer tracking. These three ideas feed one another in a continuous (and often virtuous) loop. Post-PC devices are intimately connected to individual users.

“Think of this: You have a family desktop computer, but you probably don't have a family Kindle. E-books are tied to a single Amazon account and can be read by one person at a time. The same for phones and apps. For the Fab Four, this is a beautiful thing because it means that everything done on your phone, tablet, or e-reader can be associated with you. Your likes, dislikes, and preferences feed new products and creative ways to market them to you. Collectively, the Fab Four have all registered credit-card info on a vast cross-section of Americans. They collect payments (Apple through iTunes, Google with Checkout, Amazon with Amazon Payments, Facebook with in-house credits). Both Google and Amazon recently launched Groupon-like daily-deals services, and Facebook is pursuing deals through its check-in service (after publicly retreating from its own offers product).

“It would be a mistake to see their ambitions as simply a grab for territory (and money). These four companies firmly believe that they possess the ability to enhance rather than merely replace our current products and services. They want to apply server power and software code to make every transaction more efficient for you and more profitable for them.”

And finally...

• “Tech companies are ephemeral enterprises, with a built-in obsolescence much like their products. The best firms stay at their peak for a decade tops; most get snuffed out before anyone even notices them. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have the potential to be exceptions to this rule. Their CEOs are driven, disciplined, and relatively young (Cook, the oldest, will be 51 in November). All but Cook are founders, and their personalities are such that they seem unlikely to get tired or bored by their empire building. Their market caps and strong revenue growth should allow them to neutralize other would-be rivals--witness Bezos acquiring Zappos and Quidisi ( before either could become a threat.

“As our modern oligarchy, and as individual companies, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will not last forever. But despite this oncoming war, in which attacking one another becomes standard operating practice, their inevitable slide into irrelevancy likely won't be at the hands of one of their fellow rivals. As always, the real future of tech belongs to some smart-ass kid in a Palo Alto garage.”

The full story can be found by clicking here.
KC's View:
This a great piece, focused not just on possibilities, but also on the obstacles that likely will be faced by all of these companies. It lays out scenarios by which any of the four could be the ultimate winners...and I love this quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who talks about his company but could be talking about any of the four:

“A big piece of the story we tell ourselves about who we are is that we are willing to invent. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”