Times Change; Dominant Tech Firms Change

from the antitrust? dept

An amusing tongue-in-cheek post from Adam Thierer looks back at the internet titans of the mid-90s (merely a decade and a half ago), and wonders if they should have been regulated for antitrust problems at the time:

click for larger version
If you can't see it that well, it's a spread from PC Computing, showing Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL and MSN as the "top online services." How quickly things change. That's why, a few months ago, we thought it was pretty amusing to see people fretting about a new "gang of four" who dominate the internet space: Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

Fifteen years from now, do people really think that any of those four will still be as dominant, let alone all four? The tech world changes fast. Companies come and companies go. It's ridiculously difficult to stay on top for very long. The idea that the government needs to get involved just doesn't make much sense.


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    Brendan (profile), Oct 25th, 2011 @ 11:17pm

    *waves hand* We got our 56k from Prodigy back in the day. Blazing fast!

     

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    monkyyy, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 12:05am

    google: maybe, not going to be expanding at its rate currently for sure, probably will hold the search email and rss market, and maybes on os, and online office apps
    apple: i hate them, but i think they will also be around, hopefully slowly dieing from lack of new ideas, in a field that needs them to maintain, namely the hardware tied to an image
    amazon: ummmmmm it depends, i think either they will adapt completely and contently or die out
    facebook: no, the nature of where they are; social networks, means they will die as they age very very quickly

     

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    Michael Lockyear (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 1:21am

    Government gets involved because they like to show uppity corporates / individuals(i.e. those that are not paying lobbyists / bribes) who is in charge!

    I suspect that many of the laws we have today exist for this reason.

    It is ironic that there are people who believe government is competent to tell business / individuals how to run their affairs when government cannot seem to manage its own.

     

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    Samuel Hight, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 1:51am

    Will they still be around in 15 years?

    The big four, and others, will likely still be around in 15 years, though definitely not as we would recognize them today!

    I think they have learned from the recent past and have some pretty good long-term planning in place. They couldn't have survived as long as they have without a measure of future planning.

    Key to their survival is ensuring they transmit their values, purpose, and foundational processes to those who are up-and-coming in the ranks. Even if that is in the form of an AI made in the image of Page, Brin, Jobs, etc... :-)

     

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      PaulT (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 4:26am

      Re: Will they still be around in 15 years?

      "I think they have learned from the recent past and have some pretty good long-term planning in place. They couldn't have survived as long as they have without a measure of future planning."

      Well, a couple of things: 2 of the new "big four" mentioned weren't even around 15 years ago so they haven't necessarily learned from anything in that time. Most of them have grown to points they couldn't have imagined 15 years ago, and the growing pains are visible. I'm sure many would question exactly how forward looking Facebook really is, as well...

      Personally, I'm sure that all four names will still be around due to their brand name strength, but remaining as dominant players? I'm not so sure. I'd expect at least one of them to have been swallowed up by another company in 15 years, and I'd certainly expect 2 of them to no longer be major players. They will probably be replaced by other companies, at least one of which doesn't exist yet.

       

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        Black Patriot (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 2:54pm

        Re: Re: Will they still be around in 15 years?

        They don't need to have been around to learn from the past mistakes of others. Just remember the saying "A wise man learns from his own mistakes, only an idiot doesn't learn from someone else's". Of course there's nothing to stop them from blatantly ignoring the past out or arrogance, but we have a saying for that too, "Those who ignore history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them".

        I agree with your second point though, given how many mergers and takeovers we've seen the last year, it's very unlikely that any of the big 4 will be exactly the same as they are now, and at least one of them will lose a spot in the top 4, though probably remaining in the top 10 (I'd guess Apple).

        Google has massive brand awareness, and probably still has the best search algorithms in the world. If they can avoid making the sort of mistakes they have been with things like Google+ then they'll still be relevant in 15 years, but they'll need to get into the knowledge engine game. I wouldn't be surprised if they bought a few of IBM's Watson systems for that very purpose.

        Amazon has the potential to stick around for quite a while, they're very competitive when it comes to buying goods, and they're massively expanding their cloud business, which puts them in a good position as a service provider to others in the future.

        Facebook is constantly innovating, trying new things (one look at the number of protest groups that pop up every time they change a font is all you need to see that), and as long as they keep trying new things and remain open to new ideas then they'll last, but the competition in the social networking space is fierce, so it could go either way.

        Apple is where things get interesting, they have a massive audience tied into their ecosystem with the iPhone and iTunes, but with the loss of Steve they may have also lost the sense of drive and direction he brought (for better or worse). The iCloud could be big, but if Android and WP7 keep up the pressure then Apple will slowly lose the dominance it has now (I know the number of Android phones is greater than the number of iPhones, but Apple is still beating Google in overall mobile revenue). We've already seen that Android is slowly beating the iPhone back, only time will tell how far they'll slip.

        Just my 2c.

         

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    aa, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 3:35am

    The article entirely misses the point that with dialup internet service providers, the consumer had a choice of dozens (if not hundreds) of companies to choose from. The reason why a few companies like AOL and MSN got so big was due to clever marketing, not through any kind of monopoly -- like the way cable internet exists today. Dialup customers could always switch providers in an instant. If it wasn't for the somewhat-shady but widespread practice of bundling a multi-year internet contract with a computer purchase, the dialup provider industry was as open and competitive as it could possibly be, with little need for government intervention. Compare that with today: When your monthly cable bill increases, you're simply stuck because there's (often) no comparable alternatives to switch to.

    Dialup internet was of course a transitory industry (and companies like AOL failed because they only realized this much too late) with but a decade-long lifespan. In contrast, the telephone industry's basic technology lasted a century, and current wired broadband technology (cable and fiber) will likely not be superseded anytime soon.

    It's ironic that the many independent dialup ISPs that sprang up in the 1990s would probably not have even been possible if the US government had not years earlier forced AT@T/Bell Telephone to open access of its system to other (independent) telecoms, in order to give consumers a choice of long-distance carriers. Had the government's anti-trust crusade of earlier years never taken place, it's quite possible that there might have been only one dialup internet provider -- owned and operated by the national telephone monopoly.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 4:38am

      Re:

      You are exactly right. The dialup providers were usurped by the cable and phone companies offering a different technology (cable models or dsl variants) that, while only 1 or 2 steps faster at the time, where very much more convenient.

      It is also misleading because this image is basically the "before internet" step of computer networking. Most people were signing up to AOL or Prodigy for their content and services, more than anything. The whole internet thing wasn't even really a big part of their sales mentality.

      Computers and networking were still infants. 15 years later, computers are widgets, consumer goods with about the same household penetration as a toaster or a microwave. There was a ton of room for growth and change 15 years ago, but not that much anymore. Such is the reality of a "matured" industry.

      The current connection speeds are unlikely to advance much further, we are certainly not looking at increases in speed that will make a major difference. Right now speeds are such that a full HD tv / movie signal can be delivered by most ISPs if you have a reasonable package, only the network structure is less than optimized for this. Going from 50 mbps to 100 mbps is a huge jump, but for the end user it is no longer such a big jump compares between a 28.8 dialup and suddenly a 500k cable modem connection.

      Much has changed in 15 years, the problems have shifted from connectivity to content. Nobody 15 years ago could have imagined Googled. If they could, they likely would have avoided it.

       

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    The Devil's Coachman (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 4:39am

    Hell, I was on GENIE, with an IBM PC XT

    My original modem was 300 bps, and I thought it was the shit! When they came out with the 1200 bps Hayes, I thought I was in heaven.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 5:46am

    Had these been regulated, perhaps they'd have been more cautious:

    "Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL and MSN" -- slower, stable growth.

    Conversely, will we EVER be free of Microsoft?

    The Microsoft example crumbles your weak thesis: you merely cherry pick. Corporations fade or fail for any number of reasons, but ones focused on aggressively selling mediocre linger: General Motors, McDonalds, and Microsoft at the least.

     

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      Idobek (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 6:08am

      Re: Had these been regulated, perhaps they'd have been more cautious:

      Seriously? You're using GM as your example? A company that is only still in existence due to a government bailout.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 6:19am

      Re: Had these been regulated, perhaps they'd have been more cautious:

      Prodigy, Compuserve, AOL, and MSN were all Dial-Up services, their fall was due to technological invention, Broadband Internet (DSL, Cable, Fiber). We don't use the internet today like we did in 1995. We migrated to large media that dial-up couldn't handle, and it happened very fast.

      When it comes to your hand picked "cherries," Microsoft hasn't been replaced yet because today, like 1995 consumers still use computers in the same fundamental ways (a bold statement I know), document processing, communication, graphics design, etc. and new uses evolved more slowly and iteratively rather than leaping ahead (ex. 56k to 1mb/s - 1700% increase). I think we could see a new dominate OS in the next 10 years, probably much more simplified than windows (like iOS, Android, ChromeOS) as our habits of sitting at a desktop computer evolve to laptop to netbook to tablet. The adoption rate of tablets and netbooks have been amazingly fast, and its leaps like that were the Giants can be unseated.

      As far as McD's people's use of the service hasn't changed. People still use, and expect the same out of their service, fast, cheap ($), and cheap (quality) food. until technology comes out that radically upsets that... like a 3d food printer at home where you can download recipes, McD's will probably be around.

      General motors.. aside from the fact they already went bankrupt and we bailed them out... (so we could have been 'free' from them) I think the next generation of fuel could cause the demise of GM. pure electric, hydrogen, something new (most likely), could easily unseat these slow-to-evolve giants.

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 9:34am

      Re: Had these been regulated, perhaps they'd have been more cautious:

      About Microsoft, I predicted their trajectory a couple of decades ago, and so far there's no sign that my prediction is failing.

      My prediction? They're following the same path as IBM: the big, indomitable industry player who, over time, becomes less and less relevant to the market they once dominated. Just as IBM has certainly not gone away, neither will Microsoft. However, IBM hasn't ruled the roost for a long time and in general are inconsequential to the industry. This will be Microsoft's fate. They're already well on their way.

       

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    Josef Anvil (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 6:54am

    Mike, I love your articles, but.....

    While I understand the point of this article, the comparison of tech companies is simply not comparing apples to apples. This is a case of comparing apples to oranges, grapes, pears, and bananas.

    As has been stated, the dial-up services went the way of the dinosaur because of broadband service. Tech does move fast and Facebook and Google are excellent examples of how companies can quickly become the dominant player in a space. Google rules search, for now; and Facebook is the dominant social network. Amazon and Apple are also dominant companies in their space, and even though there is some crossover, between Amazon and Apple, as well as crossover between Google and Facebook, all four of these companies are in distinctly different spaces in the market.

    This whole article could have been spun in Techdirt style to show how it is not necessary for the government to protect business models that are rendered obsolete by the advancement of technology. What if the dial-up services had whined and lobbied Congress for protection from the evil broadband monsters that were killing them? It didn't happen that way because they saw the writing on the wall and they adapted or merged to get out of the way of the next wave of progress. The content industry needs to learn from that example and adapt or merge or die off and step out of the way of the next wave of progress.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), Oct 26th, 2011 @ 10:22am

    Antitrust

    This proves that if you are allowed to pick and choose which "unbiased" data you want to use, you can prove anything. At this time, for example, by carefully picking only data they want people to consider, the entertainment industry is proving that Hitler was right.
    Unbiased data, on the other hand, shows that breaking up AT&T was a VERY good thing, and that breaking up Microsoft (okay, didn't happen - should have) would, at one time, have given us a huge shot in the arm (that we didn't get).

     

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    Peter Kinnon, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 12:45pm

    All dominance is temporary

    For a broader view on this phenomenon check out "Why Most Things Fail" by the economist Paul Ormerod.

    He, by the way, is one of the few economists who has anything useful to say and realizes the serious limitations of his field.

    For an even wider evolutionary scenario that accounts for the rise and fall of "greats" try my "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" (free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website).

    It provides an understanding of why, as Douglas Adams implied somewhere, very little in the conduct of human affairs seems to make sense. Yet things move on and continue to grow.

     

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    Peter Kinnon, Oct 26th, 2011 @ 12:47pm

    All dominance is temporary

    For a broader view on this phenomenon check out "Why Most Things Fail" by the economist Paul Ormerod.

    He, by the way, is one of the few economists who has anything useful to say and realizes the serious limitations of his field.

    For an even wider evolutionary scenario that accounts for the rise and fall of "greats" try my "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" (free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website).

    It provides an understanding of why, as Douglas Adams implied somewhere, very little in the conduct of human affairs seems to make sense. Yet things move on and continue to grow.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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