Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt recently reiterated his view that technology today was being driven by only four companies; Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. It is worth noting that Schmidt is possibly not one of the world’s most perceptive people.
He personally regrets not having recognised the importance of social networks during his time as CEO of Google. His replacement as CEO by Larry Page was put down to his lack of vision and his failure to drive innovation at Google.
At a superficial level, it is easy to see why people, including Schmidt, would see Apple as playing a more significant technological role in the world today than Microsoft, who didn’t even make Schmidt’s list. The iPhone and iPad have become a media fuelled fantasy mediating our mobile and socially connected lives. The PC, long associated with Microsoft for its dominance in that market, is all but dead. And we have the “Cloud” for all our other needs. But like electricity, water and other utilities, nobody really cares where this comes from, do they?
As one possible way of assessing the importance of a technological company in a society, it is worth considering the theoretical consequences and impact if that company were to disappear overnight. Consider Apple for example. In the case of both phones and laptops or PCs, the transition to an equivalent platform would not be that significant a move.
In the case of the laptop or PC, the chances are that those users were already using Microsoft Office and other products that were primarily developed for the Microsoft platform. With the iPhone, there would be some apps that did not have versions available on Android or Windows phones, but there would be equivalents. In any case, phone applications are somewhat trivial in significance when compared to the corporate systems that are accessed via the desktop or laptop computer.
Even Apple’s other services like iTunes would not be particularly missed, with any number of other companies providing music, movies and books.
Although, Facebook has built a huge user base of one billion users, they could all move to another comparable network like Google without too much problem. There is nothing inherent in Facebook that makes it unique or critical.
In fact, of all the four companies in the list, Google, with its search functionality, would probably be the most significant technology lost if they all were to disappear. Even though there are other search services, they still do not match Google in quality. But even here, the disruption to the world would not be particularly significant. People would just use Bing, or Yahoo instead.
In all of these cases, the cost of moving from one of these platforms to another would be relatively minor. This is starkly contrasted by the impact that the world would feel if Microsoft’s technology were to disappear overnight. This is because the majority of significant software runs on servers and it is here that Microsoft, and for that matter, other companies such as IBM and Oracle, dominate.
Over recent decades, software has been designed in such a way that the front end is largely interchangeable with all of the intelligence and complexity residing on the server. This of course has culminated with architectures based on server software residing in the “cloud” accessed by web browsers running on any device.
Ironically, it is this architecture that has made the use of an Android phone largely interchangeable with an iPhone or even a Windows phone.
The Android-Apple platform
Schmidt said that the “Android-Apple platform fight is the defining contest” because of the sheer numbers of developers and devices involved. What he failed to mention is that the large majority of those developers are in a very long tail, producing software that will barely be noticed by anyone.
What Android and iOS has driven is the concept of a touch-enabled smartphone that has now matured to the point where it is unlikely to change significantly in near future. Developers could switch to developing for Windows Phone without any difficulty and largely without very much inconvenience to their users.
The same is certainly not the case for developers of the server-based software on which all of the world’s commerce, industry and human interaction run.
Boring as it may seem and possibly disappointing to the likes of Schmidt and Cook, the list of the top most significant technological companies today would include Microsoft, IBM and Oracle and not Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.