Remember the 90s? Remember Microsoft's antitrust troubles? For years, the software giant was in the crosshairs of government officials because it was deemed too dominant and needed to be broken up. Well, those times are back, only this time, nobody is crying foul.
There are now five companies who are ruling the world and have the potential to grow into dangerous quasi-monopolists. All of them were minions or not around the last time anti-trust issues were hotly debated. They are, in no particular order, Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Apple, and Netflix. And we love them. They have made life so convenient that consumers even put aside privacy concerns.
Yet their increasing dominance does not bode well for the world in the next decade. Let's start with the most troublesome one, our beloved Facebook.
The Plumbing of Life: Facebook
Facebook won the social wars. There is no other network that comes even close. With over 1,6 billion users spending hours at at time on the social network, Facebook has become the source of news, the way to connect with friends and family, a place to do business, to consume entertainment content, and actually manage your business.
We are consuming more unedited, biased news than ever before because of Facebook. Everyone’s a journalist now, and it only takes money and cunning to promote your biased views to “news” status. But Facebook is replacing other things too, from letters, birthday cards, photo albums, to television. Millions of people use their profiles to keep “a record of their lives”, millions watch newscasts on Facebook now. Facebook is even becoming a tool of social manipulation, for example with its suicide prevention program. Its cooperation with law enforcement is increasing also. Governments around the world are looking into the feasibility of voting via Facebook, and offering government services on the platform.
Facebook has recently introduced functions for job search that are intended to undermine its competitor LinkedIn more regional competitors like Xing. AI is already threatening recruiters (INSERT LINK), but AI combined with Facebook will make the entire HR industry obsolete.
Finally, Facebook is defining commerce, not as a selling platform per se (that hasn't really taken off) but by becoming the primary source to learn about new products and trends. It is putting magazines, forums, and other media out of business. Serious nerds may have moved to Reddit, but nevertheless, businesses around the world are increasingly relying on having a Facebook page and driving traffic through it to websites and stores.
Every change Facebook makes affects millions of companies. The platform is so integral to business and marketing that one black-out, one adverse change in the algorithm, one successful attack by a hacker could put the livelihood of millions in peril. Governments control utilities like water and electricity, or at least supervise them closely, yet no one is really supervising Facebook. Maybe it is time to think about nationalizing Facebook or turning it into a global utility, because that, in effect, is what is has become.
In commerce, Facebook may be the place to stumble upon cool products. But consumers like to order them on retail websites, none more so than Amazon.
The World's Retailer: Amazon
The real behemoth in business is, of course, Amazon. It has become virtually impossible to sell anything in America and most of Europe without being on Amazon. Even if consumers buy in a shop or on other websites, they tend to read the Amazon reviews first.
Brick and mortar stores are closing down, local retail websites are feeling the pressure everywhere. Almost 70% of American households have subscribed to Amazon Prime which offers free shipping and other conveniences. Small retailers cannot compete with that. The typical customer journey goes from Facebook (discover the new product) straight to Amazon (check the review and price, then get it shipped quickly and free of charge). The two companies together are already monopolizing business in large parts of the world and continue to expand at breakneck speed.
But even where it is not the dominant retailer, one part of Amazon is ruling the new economy: Amazon's web services (AWS) are the most powerful tools ever given to companies. The APP economy would not exist without AWS. In public IaaS, AWS is three times bigger than IBM, Google and Microsoft put together. Businesses everywhere depend on Amazon delivering IT services around the clock at an all-time low price. Outages affect thousands of companies. When AWS sneezes, thousands of startups die of pneumonia.
I predict that Amazon will one day be the largest company on earth, the first with a trillion dollar valuation. Amazon Echo and Alexa, the AI behind it, are ingenious inventions that will soon be part of homes the way we now turn on the light with a switch. Amazon has made buying so convenient that consumers willingly share all their data with the giant.
Echo is just a transition. In the future, you will be talking to your vacuum cleaner and tell it to order its own bags. And as you fill the drum, Alexa in the washing machine will remind you that it’s time to order more Tide. Just like Facebook knows you better than you do yourself, Amazon knows more about your shopping habits than you do. The convenience Amazon brings means customers do not seem to care about the enormous privacy issues associated with that. Data rules, and we let it rule. Which brings us to the third data monster in the room.
Meet the real HAL: Alphabet
Alphabet's Google dominates the market for search. If you do not show up in search results you don't exist. Alphabet's move into artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, autonomous cars, and a cornucopia of other ventures, plus its financial clout, mean it is set up to be the monopoly provider of information and services in a long list of industries. Its mobile operating system and browsers have higher market shares than Windows ever had. Your Chrome browser offers increasingly convenient functions, but it also collects a massive amount of data.
“To Google” has long been a word, but as we move away from text search to voice interaction with PCs, it is likely that the AI behind much of the voice computing world will be powered by Alphabet even if we don't realize it. Unlike Amazon, whose Alexa only has one purpose (to make you buy stuff ), Google's AI still does not have a shape or form and probably never will. Google has chosen not to give it a corny name because it wants the AI to be part of the software or hardware. Alphabet is also the only company ready to build a truly universal artificial intelligence (Its approach is rather different from IBM for example.) Rest assured, DeepMind may soon be used to evaluate data in important decisions, monitor elections, shape government policy, and much more. Artificial Intelligence is a huge opportunity, but also a big danger, as minds wiser than mind have been warning for a while.
The Big Unknown: Apple
By comparison, Apple seems to the least threatening of these companies. But that is misleading. Apple dominates huge swathes of the online business for music and apps. Despite falling market share and the criticism that it has failed to innovate in the last few years, Apple is still a formidable force. Its Siri AI is the only competitor to Google sufficiently advanced and generally in the hands of consumers (as opposed to IBM Watson), and Apple will certainly be a leading player in the AI space. We have no idea what devices it is working on, but it won't just limit itself to yet another iPhone.
What's more, Apple is dominating the world's IT supply chains where it counts. One of the reasons companies like HTC were struggling a while back was that Apple monopolizes so much of the phone supply chain that competitors find it hard to secure components. Apple's influence is also more intangible: look at the Zenbook or Xiaomi's latest notebook and phone models, and you can see the ghost of Steve Jobs. Whatever Apple decides to do in autonomous cars will have a huge impact on the world.
The big question at this point is whether Apple will continue to focus on devices and the services linked to it, or whether it will expand in the content space. I can see Apple buying a media company such as Disney in order to cement its dominant position. The reason for this is growing competition by the fifth behemoth, Netflix.
The World's Entertainment Center: Netflix
Netflix is the most underestimated of the five. But think about it that way: traditional movie studios need to budget each film separately. If it fails, they take a loss. If several in a row flop, they may go under or be bought by rivals.
Netflix on the other hand, at the time of writing, has 100 million subscribers who pay USD 12 every month. The company has 1.2 billion every month to do what they like. Big studio bosses only dream of such a revenue stream.
With all that money, Netflix is a position to expand globally, localize, create more and more content, and make its entertainment experience social. There are already Netflix parties going on where users come together to watch the latest shows on Netflix. With the right software, this can be done online, and if Netflix decides to buy Twitter (or develop its own social network), we can finally yap all the way through the movie.
Integration with existing platforms will mean Netflix will quickly become the dominant entertainment platform worldwide. It may threaten the big Hollywood studios, and if it plays VR/AR right (which will be consumed only in a personal space and not the movie theater), it may become more dominant. It may share the stage with Amazon for a while, but so far Amazon content has been rather disappointing. I don't think an HBO-Netflix merger is ridiculous; I think it is likely. That, or they'll snap up other studios as they get cheaper.
Well, this is the lineup for the next few years. My money is on those five companies, literally.
You may have noticed that I am not including Uber or AirBnb in this list. That is because I believe these kinds of exploitative matchmaking technologies will ultimately be replaced by blockchain technology. I don't know when it will happen, but unless they radically change their business models, they will never become as dominant as the above 5 in the coming decade.
Oh, and Microsoft? Well, they certainly are still around. Recently they have come up with devices that surprised by their elegance and performance. Its AI efforts are admirable. It has bought LinkedIn in order to keep a foot in the door of business social, even though so far it has focused on the wrong aspects of LinkedIn (Revenue through HR services, rather than making it an all-round business network focused on people's existing jobs.)
I still haven't a clue what the future of Microsoft will look like, and I think neither does Microsoft. A bit of this and a bit of that do not a strategy or vision make. The company seems to have split up into too many little fiefdoms competing for resources, with no coherent plan. So perhaps what the regulators didn't achieve two decades ago may come about naturally: a breakup of sorts.
The author Martin Hiesboeck is an international branding and corporate strategy consultant with a focus on Asia. He is currently the director of marketing at Taiwan's leading brand internationalization agency, Geber Consulting (Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook) He works mainly with companies developing international brands and guides multinational companies on their journey in the Asian marketplace.