Back in 2011, I was talking with Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, backstage at our D9 conference, when he made a casual reference to a “Gang of Four” companies that he believed ruled the consumer tech industry. Once on stage, I asked him about that term.
He explained that, in his view, there were four giant platform companies that dominated consumer tech: Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. “We’ve never had four companies growing at the scale those are, in aggregate,” he said.
“Each of the companies that I’ve mentioned,” he continued, “has managed to use very modern concepts of computer science [and] very, very aggressive scaling approaches to get large very quickly in the area they’re focused on.” He added: “These are global companies with reach and economics that 10 years ago or 20 years ago only one company had.”
That one company? Microsoft, which he pointedly left out of the gang. Asked why, he said it was because he saw the Seattle software giant as an enterprise-oriented company focused on older products. (The next day at the conference, a top Microsoft executive, Steven Sinofsky, sarcastically replied that “nothing called the ‘Gang of Four’ ends well” — a reference to a supposedly treasonous Chinese political faction from the 1970’s.)
Six years later, those same five companies (I’m including Microsoft) are even more powerful, individually and collectively. Each has had its hits and misses, and each is in added businesses now. But, if anything, in my view, they are even more dominant than they were when Mr. Schmidt publicly referred to them as a gang.
The oligopoly rules
In fact, what we have now in consumer tech, in 2017, is an oligopoly, at least superficially similar to the old industrial-era American corporate groups that once dominated key industries.
To be clear, I’m not alleging that the Gang of Five is colluding with each other to fix prices, or to actively suppress innovation; or to do anything illegal. I am certainly not suggesting they be sued for antitrust violations, like the once-sole dominant platform company, Microsoft, was in the late 1990’s.
But I do think that their enduring and growing power casts a shadow over the Silicon Valley legend that there are lots of great new consumer tech innovations being incubated right now in garages or dorm rooms somewhere that will be taken all the way to becoming great companies, the way each of the Gang of Five was.
What I fear is more likely to happen to any such startup is that, if they’re good, they get acquired by a member of the Gang, or that their idea is turned into a feature for one of the Gang’s products.
And, even if that never happens, and a startup thrives, too often it can only thrive by being successful on a platform controlled by one or more Gang members, with the big guy maybe taking a cut. For instance, Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, which went public last week, famously spurned a $3 billion takeover offer from Gang member Facebook in 2013. But it depends for its very operation on the cloud services of Google and on the mobile app platforms of Apple and Google.
Annual buying sprees
And plenty of other companies which either presented threats or opportunities to the Gang have been snapped up by them. Each of the five companies actively scoops up numerous smaller companies every year, in many cases just for their talent and / or patents. In fact, I’d be amazed if there weren’t plenty of startups whose main goal is to be purchased by the Gang.
To refresh your memory, here are just a few of the more famous examples.
Google bought YouTube, DoubleClick, Android and Nest.
Microsoft bought Skype, Nokia and LinkedIn.
Facebook bought Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus.
Amazon bought Audible, Zappos and Twitch.
Even Apple, which typically shuns big deals and doesn’t even disclose many smaller acquisitions, bought its own chip design company, P.A. Semi; Beats, the headphone maker and music service; and Siri, the voice-controlled assistant service.
In nearly every case, these acquisitions — and many more obscure ones — have made the Gang even more powerful and ubiquitous. Can you imagine Google today without Android or YouTube? Can you imagine Apple’s iPhones and iPads without their super-fast custom processors or (for all its flaws) Siri?
Copying and Taxes
Another way in which the Gang, with its legions of engineers, extends its power is by aping the features of other tech companies’ products, and incorporating them into a platform. Two recent examples: Facebook’s Instagram launched a “stories’ features that works a lot like Snapchat’s. Amazon’s Twitch appears to be creating a service that operates like Twitter.
And, for many smaller companies, especially makers of apps, hardware accessories and services, it’s necessary to either pay some form of tax to one of these platform owners or to abide by rules they set and can change at any time. That stifles innovation.
Even among the Gang members, there’s both a certain interdependency, and a gradual expansion into each others’ turf. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter was when Google bought and developed Android, eventually competing head on with Apple’s iPhone, even though Schmidt was on Apple's board.
Four of the five have some form of streaming music service. Google still has the failed Google Plus, which tried to compete with Facebook. Amazon, once merely a great online retailer, now makes a range of hardware and is a leader in the nascent artificial intelligence field, where every Gang member is toiling. Facebook has launched a marketplace for goods that competes in some respect with Amazon. Amazon’s AWS cloud services arm goes head to head with Google and Microsoft.
And yet they also cooperate. Facebook is so important to Apple that it’s built right into iOS (along with Twitter.) Microsoft makes numerous apps for both Android and iOS, as do Google, Amazon and Facebook. You can run iTunes and iCloud on Windows and Office on the Mac. And Apple still uses Google as the default search engine on its Safari browser.
When Apple was battling the FBI over unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone, the rest of the Gang (and many other companies) had its back. On issues like President Trump’s immigration policies, they circle the wagons.
Of course, there are some pretty famous non-Gang members who either run or are trying to run competing consumer platforms. Twitter, for instance, is kind of a platform, though it’s poorly managed and has actually stepped back from making its content easily available on apps. Slack isn’t a consumer app now, but it could be if it wanted to (though it’s dependent on the platforms of the Gang.)
NIntendo is an independent platform company. So is Sony’s gaming unit. So is Netflix, though it has high dependence on the Gang. Roku is another successful independent platform company.
The four major wireless carriers (themselves an even more classic oligopoly) occasionally try and offer their own software and services in hopes of becoming platforms. For instance, you can only watch NFL games on a phone if Verizon is your carrier. But, so far, I wouldn’t call them true platforms like the Gang members.
Outside the U.S., companies like Alibaba and Tencent own powerful platforms. Samsung periodically tries to become a big mobile software and services platform. It even bought Viv, the A.I. company started by the creators of Siri. But a combination of carrots and sticks from Google, which wants Samsung to use its services, seems to periodically rein it in.
I’m a fan of all the Gang members. I use products from all of them daily or weekly. And I’m aware that, in American capitalism, there’s a long tradition of industries being dominated by a handful of giants for long periods — for example, the “Big Three” carmakers or the three major broadcast TV networks. But, eventually, upstarts (or the government) break such groups up.
Ultimately, I don’t think even a five-company platform oligopoly is good for consumer tech. By its very nature, it handicaps independent companies with new ideas. But it will end one day. I just don’t know when.