Jaron Lanier recently talked extensively about Apple and Google's stake in this. The "this"?
It's the "hollowing out" of the cost of information delivery devices, often along with initial loss-leader prices on at least a sampling of information with proprietary control.
Then, J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch argue that Amazon (and, to a lesser degree, other e-publishers) may be going down the same path of hollowing out and information control.
This is another installment of my "dark side of the Internet" series, for that reason.
Let's not forget that Stewart Brand's famous, or infamous, "Information wants to be free" quote was only one half of the issue:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.What Lanier is saying is that the Apples and Googles of the world have the critical mass to make information free, or nearly so for now. And, I read Konrath and Crouch saying the same about Amazon. Then, later, like WallyWorld, in a more and more semi-monopolized Internet, where they have more control of the "right place," it will get expensive.
(Update: At the same time, Lanier is himself some sort of tech-neolib, who is dumb enough, naive enough, or on the take enough to assume that Big Data will give you or I micropayments for using its services.)
So, let's take a look at each of the Big Three, their current "stake" and what may be ahead.
Plus No. 2? A fanatically loyal customer base, along with an almost mythical image as being an "anti-corporation," i.e., not IBM. (Even more than "not Microsoft" in some ways) Can Tim Cook maintain it, especially in four or five years, after Jobs, assuming further health decline, steps down as chairman of the board?
Weaknesses? It has little information to manage/control in the traditional sense. It's well set for the management of information with all of its self-centeredness, but it has no pile of information yet.
Google? The personalization of its logo on its home page for many holidays, tied with the personalization of Internet searches that Google offers us, brands Google as being an anti-corporation, i.e., not Microsoft, but in a different way than Apple. Through "personalized" web searches, it also fosters that image.
At the same time, such search personalization, a "real names" policy on Google Plus and cloud computing, show Google's profit motive is at least as transparent as that of Bill Gates for anybody who looks at all.
Specific to this issue, Google has the strength of Internet search leadership and the willingness to spend on anything that will increase such leadership. Buying YouTube, developing Google-Plus after previous social media flops, and continued investing on cloud computing all illustrate that.
Weakness? As Amazon's "forking" of Android shows, it's not made its information flow very proprietary yet. Cloud computing may change that, although with the amount of rented server space Amazon offers, that may not be an unchallenged strength for Google in the future.
Weakness No. 2? Government regulators in both the U.S. and Europe worry that Google IS the new Microsoft.
Below? Amazon, the "new kid on the block," and further thoughts.
In both cases, and in countless less well-known brandings, the "brand" is designed to make consumers feel like insiders, even as (as Lanier notes), this company may be affecting their livelihood.
As one of the top online shopping destinations, along with eBay, and one of the top-two mobile platform online shopping destinations, Amazon has plenty of information right there. Add in its rapid expansion in publishing as well as sale of e-books (including its toleration, at the least, of spam e-books on its website), it clearly wants to grow its information.
Weakness? Right now, it doesn't have the "branding" of either of its competitors to be. But, look for Jeff Bezos to try to change that. Weakness No. 2? It doesn't have the degree of vertical integration of Apple or horizontal integration of Google. The Amazon tablet will partially address the first; look for Amazon to bust open the corporate wallet for an acquisition or two on the second. A group marketing site ... something like social-coupon company GroupOn, might well fit with Amazon.
Who's not listed? Social media's Facebook and the original Microsoft, that is, Microsoft.
Microsoft is still half-adrift in the Steve Ballmer era in a number of ways. To be honest, to be even close to a player here, it probably needs a new CEO. How soon that happens? Before 2015 is my guess.
Facebook? I think Mark Zuckerberg is a mix of clueless and lucky. Beyond that, Google Plus will continue to cut into his edge, even as Facebook continues to regularly and irritatingly play around with site settings. He does have some "information" through third-party companies like Zynga, but none of that is proprietary, nor is its delivery.
That said, with at least two of the big three, there are ways to fight back.
First, its heart, the search engine. Every couple of weeks or so, I do a fake search on Google. This usually involves one, the other, or both of cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin combined with some deviant sexual behavior. Not only does it throw a bit of a twist into Google search personalization, it gives Google a bit of a raspberry.
Second, don't use cloud computing. Beyond the issue of putting even more information in Google's hands, the question of cloud computing security's not been tested at anything close to large scale yet.
First, do something kind of similar to Google. Put all sorts of stuff in your shopping basket you never intend to buy, and not just stuff in areas that interest you. Say you have no kids at home; put a bunch of kids'-related stuff in your cart on occasion. Ditto on reviews. Review something you tried once 20 years ago.
Second, don't buy its new tablet.
With Apple, there's one thing off the top of my head. Since Apple has made its bet on proprietary control, don't buy any Apple mobile product unless you or a friend know how to jailbreak it. Period.
Update, Feb. 22, 2013: Massimo Pigliucci weighs in well on this issue.