Facebook meets irresistible force

Terrific blog post by Josh Marshall:

I believe what we’re seeing here is a convergence of two separate but highly charged news streams and political moments. On the one hand, you have the Russia probe, with all that is tied to that investigation. On another, you have the rising public backlash against Big Tech, the various threats it arguably poses and its outsized power in the American economy and American public life. A couple weeks ago, I wrote that after working with Google in various capacities for more than a decade I’d observed that Google is, institutionally, so accustomed to its customers actually being its products that when it gets into lines of business where its customers are really customers it really doesn’t know how to deal with them. There’s something comparable with Facebook.

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

Spot on. Especially the Stepford Wives metaphor.

How things change

The €2.4B fine on Google handed down by the European Commission stemmed originally from complaints by shopping-comparison sites that changes in Google Shopping that the company introduced in 2008 had amounted to an abuse of its dominance in search. But 2008 was a long time ago in this racket, and shopping-comparison sites have become relatively small beer because Internet users researching possible purchases don’t start with a search engine any more. (Many of them start with Amazon, for example.)

This is deployed (by the Internet giants) as an argument for the futility of trying to regulate behaviour by dominant firms: the legal process of investigation takes so long that the eventual ruling is so out of date as to be meaningless.

This is a convenient argument, but the conclusion isn’t that we shouldn’t regulate these monsters. Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the product search scene has changed over time, as this chart shows.

Source

The obvious solution to the time-lag problem is — as the Financial Times reported on January 3 — for regulators to have “powers to impose so-called “interim measures” that would order companies to stop suspected anti-competitive behaviour before a formal finding of wrongdoing had been reached.” At the moment the European Commission does have powers to impose such measures, but only if it can prove that a company is causing “irrevocable harm” — a pretty high threshold. The solution: lower the threshold.

Amazon and the long game

This morning’s Observer column:

The news that Amazon had acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7bn sent shivers down the spine of every retailer in America. Shares in Walmart fell 7%, and rival Kroger by 17%. Amazon’s market capitalisation, in contrast, went up by $11bn. So why the fuss? At first sight it seemed straightforward: Amazon wanted to get into food sales, and it fancied having a network of 400 urban stores; and Whole Foods (which some of my American friends call “whole wallet” because of the cost of its products) was ailing. There was also a small political angle: John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, had been enmeshed in a row with an activist investor that threatened to drive him from power; by selling to Amazon, he gets to keep his job. So: small earthquake in food retailing, not many dead?

Er, not quite, and only if you avoid taking the long view. And, with Amazon, the long view is the only one that makes sense…

Read on

If the EU doesn’t take on Google, who will?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, the European commission, that bete noire of Messrs Gove, Johnson & co, resumed its attack on Google. On Wednesday, Eurocrats filed formal charges against the company, accusing it of abusing its dominance of the Android operating system, which is currently the world’s most-used mobile operating system software. This new charge comes on top of an earlier case in which the commission accused Google of abusing its overwhelming dominance of the web-search market in Europe in order to favour its own enterprises over those of competitors.

This could be a big deal. If the commission decides that Google has indeed broken European competition law, then it can levy fines of up to 10% of the company’s annual global revenue for each of the charges. Given that Google’s global sales last year came to nearly $75bn, we’re talking about a possible fine of $15bn (£10.5bn). Even by Google standards, that’s serious money. And it’s not exactly an idle threat: in the past, the Eurocrats have taken more than a billion dollars off both Microsoft and Intel for such violations.

To those of us who follow these things, there’s a whiff of Back to the Future here.

Read on

Amazon’s Cloud Nine

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1999, Andy Grove, then the CEO of Intel, was widely ridiculed for declaring that “in five years’ time there won’t be any internet companies. All companies will be internet companies or they will be dead.” What he meant was that anybody who aspired to be in business in 2004 would have to deal with the internet in one way or another, just as they relied on electricity. And he was right; that’s what a GPT is like: it’s pervasive.

But digital technology differs in four significant ways from earlier GPTs. First of all, it is characterised by zero – or near-zero – marginal costs: once you’ve made the investment needed to create a digital good, it costs next to nothing to roll out and distribute a million (or indeed a billion) copies. Second, digital technology can exploit network effects at much greater speeds than the GPTs of the past. Third, almost everything that goes on in digital networks is governed by so-called power law distributions, in which a small number of actors (sites, companies, publishers…) get most of the action, while everyone else languishes in a “long tail”. Finally, digital technology sometimes gives rise to technological “lock-in”, where the proprietary standards of one company become the de facto standards for an entire industry. Thus, Microsoft once had that kind of lock-in on the desktop computer market: if you wanted to be in business you could have any kind of computer you wanted – so long as it ran Windows…

Read on

LATER Just came on this — which makes the same point about Amazon’s AWS, only more forcefully.

Microsoft: obituaries are premature

This morning’s Observer column:

One of my favourite cartoons shows a team of scientists in a Nasa control room clustered around a big screen. Their spacecraft has just landed on a very distant planet and has begun transmitting data back to base. A guy in overalls is saying to his assembled colleagues: “Now all we have to do is figure out how to install Windows 95.”

Ah yes, Windows 95… I remember it well. It signified the moment when Microsoft finally managed to implement the user interface invented by Xerox in the early 70s. It was launched with the biggest hype-storm that the computer industry – or indeed any other industry – had ever seen. Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones an unconscionable amount of money (we never found out how much) to use Start Me Up as the musical backdrop for the launch. The first internet boom, triggered by the web and the Netscape browser, was just beginning to roll and Windows 95 was the first Microsoft operating system to have a TCP/IP stack (needed to connect to the internet) baked in.

Back then, the PC was the sun in the computing universe around which everything else revolved. And Microsoft controlled well over 90% of the PC software market. So Windows 95 really was a big deal.

Last week, 20 years on, Microsoft launched Windows 10 with the kind of faded hoopla that accompanies 60s discos…

Read on

And then, of course, there is the fact that Microsoft is one of the very few large corporations that is still doing serious, high-quality, long-term research.

Internet Explorer RIP

This morning’s Observer column:

Let’s spool back a bit – to 1993. By then, the internet was roughly 10 years old, but for its first decade had been largely unknown to anyone other than geeks and computer science researchers. Two years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee had created and released the world wide web onto the internet, but initially no one noticed. Then in the spring of 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released Mosaic – the first graphical browser – and suddenly the “real world” realised what the internet was for, and clamoured to get aboard.

But here’s the strange thing: Microsoft – by then the overwhelmingly dominant force in the computing world – failed to notice the internet. One of Bill Gates’s biographers, James Wallace, claimed that Microsoft didn’t even have an internet server until early in 1993, and that the only reason the company set one up was because Steve Ballmer, Gates’s second-in-command, had discovered on a sales trip that most of his big corporate customers were complaining that Windows didn’t have a “TCP/IP stack” – ie, a way of connecting to the internet. Ballmer had never heard of TCP/IP. “I don’t know what it is,” he shouted at subordinates on his return to Seattle. “I don’t want to know what it is. But my customers are screaming about it. Make the pain go away.”

But even when Microsoft engineers built a TCP/IP stack into Windows, the pain continued…

Read on

Why the world’s poor shouldn’t be conned into thinking that Facebook is the Net

This morning’s Observer column:

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a senior minister in which he revealed that he thought the web was the internet. While I was still reeling from the shock of finding a powerful figure labouring under such a staggering misconception, I ran into Sir Tim Berners-Lee at a Royal Society symposium. Over coffee, I told him about my conversation with the minister. “It’s actually much worse than that,” he said, ruefully. “Hundreds of millions of people now think that Facebook is the internet.”

He’s right – except that now the tally of the clueless is now probably closer to a billion. (Facebook has more than 1.3 billion users, some of whom presumably know the difference between an app and the network.)

Does this matter? Answer: yes, profoundly, and here’s why…

Read on

Ballmer apocrypha and the irrelevance of Microsoft

Apropos my column, Jean-Louis Gasseé has an hilarious spoof Steve Ballmer memo reflecting on how Microsoft screwed up. Worth reading in full, but here’s an excerpt:

For all these years, we scrupulously followed McKinsey’s “Not A Single Crack In The Wall” advice, we’ve managed to successfully Embrace and Extend each and every possible threat to the Windows + Office combo.

While we initially underestimated these new tablets, their threat soon became obvious and we started thinking of ways to protect our franchise. 

That’s when I took the company in the wrong direction. 

To prevent these tablets from penetrating the Office market, I followed our Embrace and Extend strategy and endorsed the creation of hybrid software and hardware: The dual-mode (Desktop and Touch UI) Windows 8 and Surface tablets.

The results are in. Windows 8 hasn’t taken the market by storm. The Windows 8 tablets manufactured by our hardware partners are sitting in warehouses.  We just took a $900M write-off on our RT tablets, now on fire-sale.

It doesn’t matter who actually proposed or implemented the failed strategy, I endorsed it. What matters most — the only thing that matters — is what we’re going to do now.

And while we’re on this topic, Benedict Evans has a very perceptive post arguing that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that Microsoft peaked in 1995. Excerpt:

Just as overnight success can take a lifetime, so overnight collapse can also take a long time. There are founders creating companies today who weren’t born when people were still actually scared of big bad Micro$oft. It stopped setting the agenda 18 years ago. Windows 95 was the moment of victory, but was also the peak: it came just at the moment that the Internet started taking off, and Microsoft was never a relevant force on the internet despite investing tens of billions of dollars.

But you needed a PC to use the internet, and for almost everyone that PC ran Windows, so Microsoft’s failure to create successful online services didn’t seem to matter. Microsoft survived and thrived in the PC internet era, despite appearing to be irrelevant, by milking its victory in the previous phase of the technology industry. PC sales were 59m units in 1995 and rose to over 350m in 2012. Of course, that’s now coming to an end.

Though it looks like we’ve passed the tipping point, this process isn’t going to be over quickly. PC sales aren’t going to zero this year. But the replacement cycle, already at 5 years, will lengthen further and further, more and more apps will move to mobile or the cloud, and for many people the PC will end up like the printer or fax – vestigial reminders of an older way of doing things. Microsoft may yet manage to turn Windows tablets and phones into products with meaningful market share, but it will never be dominant again.

LATER: Lovely piece in Slate which explains Microsoft’s decline in terms of the storylines of The Wire.