Another game of thrones: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are at each other’s throats in all sorts of ways
IT IS an epic story of warring factions in a strange and changing landscape, a tale of incursions and sieges, of plots and betrayals, of battlefield brilliance and of cunning with coin.
The sequence of doorstop fantasy novels that George R.R. Martin began with “A Game of Thrones”, and which HBO has now turned into a hit television show, provides the sort of immersive experience of an alien world that has always been popular among techies. But these days the escapism they offer may be tinged with an eldritch sense of recognition. Silicon Valley offers few dragons or direwolves, but Mr Martin’s tales of a world that has lost its king echoes the reality of today’s technology industry, where the battle lines between the four large companies seen as dominating the consumer internet—Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon—are in furious flux. The death last year of Steve Jobs, Apple’s monarch, robbed the technology world of the nearest thing that it had to royalty. But even before Jobs’s passing, tension was growing between the great powers of the web generation as the onset of mobile computing upset the previous balance of power.
The tech industry has a history of bitter rivalries: IBM and Apple in the 1980s; Microsoft and Netscape in the 1990s. But the rivalries shaping the market today are even richer and more complicated, not least because they have a personal edge. Three of the big four are still run by men who made their billions as founder, or co-founder, of their empires—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. And although Jobs no longer rules Apple, he groomed Tim Cook, his successor as chief executive. “In the modern history of technology we have never seen such a highly engaged group of chief executives and founders,” says Mary Meeker, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture-capital company.
Nor has the industry ever seen such young and feisty firms—Apple, the oldest of the quartet, was founded in 1976—with so much financial firepower. Each of the companies has developed a powerful business model. Google has turned search into a huge money-spinner by tying it to advertising. Facebook is in the process of doing something similar with the way people’s interests and relationships are revealed by their social networks. Amazon has made it cheap and easy to order physical goods and digital content online. And Apple has minted money by selling beautiful gadgets at premium prices.