has published what might be the best, clearest look at the how the contours of the tech landscape are shaping themselves
, and how that landscape has come to be dominated by four companies.
I was alerted to the article via a tweet by Chronicle
tech reporter Casey Newton who characterized the article as a "great, thorough overview of the big four tech companies and their competitive strategies." Before clicking, I guessed what the "big four" tech companies might be. I got only one of them right -- Apple.
My guesses were: Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard (or Intel, or Oracle), but they acutally are: Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
Which shows just how out of the loop I am.
Or maybe it just shows that people have different ideas about what a
"technology company" is or at least that such definitions are
increasingly hard to apply. To me, it has always meant a company -- the
of which is some kind of technology, including software or hardware. Of the four companies featured in the Fast Company
article, only Apple really meets that definition, and even then, Apple
is selling technology partly as a way to sell other stuff -- music, for
example. But still, most of its revenue comes from selling gadgets and
software to people. That's not the case with the other three.
The writer of the article is Farhad Manjoo, best known for his work at
Slate. He might be the best tech writer in the country, and the article
is predictably brilliant. He doesn't directly address the question of
how we decide what is and what is not a "tech company," but in
describing how his "big four" have come to dominate our technological
lives, and how they are increasingly battling each other for dominance,
he makes such a good case that my fusty old definition might be beside the
point. What, after all, could be more beside the point than Hewlett
"There was a time, not long ago," Manjoo writes, "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."
Quaint, but still apt to some degree. All of those definitions, while
incomplete, are still accurate. Still, the question isn't an academic
one. Google has, for years, resisted the notion that it is a "media
company" and insisted that it's a tech company. This even though Google
makes the great bulk of its revenue from presenting information to the
public in return for advertising dollars -- the very definition of a
media company. Google's insistence is, no doubt, rooted partly in how
differently investors value media companies and tech companies. You
can't blame Google for wanting to be known as the latter, with its
implications of wide profit margins and growth.
Also, in both hardware and software, most of the innovations that have
the most impact on people at this point are coming from the big four and
companies like them. Microsoft might still dominate the market for
computer operating systems, but both money and attention are
increasingly being diverted from desktop computers to smartphones and
tablet computers. People use those devices mostly to communicate,
consume media, play games, and buy stuff -- not to perform the tasks we
normally associate with "computing."
Even if the technological
innovations coming from the big four are created mainly to sell digital
downloads, retail goods, and advertising, they are still innovations
that directly affect the people who use them.
Amazon isn't selling Kindles to make money on Kindles, but to make money
on books, music, and all the other stuff it sells. That's why it's
pricing the new Kindle Fire so low. Similarly, Amazon's cloud-computing
service exists mainly to support the company's other businesses, but
it's still a technology service it sells directly to companies.
Of the four, Facebook is furthest from actually being a technology
company. Manjoo, though, thinks that could easily change. CEO Mark
Zuckerberg, he writes, "needs to maintain a direct line to the pockets
of Facebook members, and that's why you can discount his repeated
dismissal of rumors that he'll enter the hardware business."
In the end, the definition of what a "tech company" is might come
down not to whether a company's end product is technology, but to how
big an impact a company has on our technological lives. By that
definition, it's hard to argue that the big four are not much more
powerful tech companies than Microsoft, HP, or Cisco are.
Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.
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