Internet Companies, Control and the Data War

Mon Dec 1 12:35:00 2014

There seems to be an interesting shift of late in the 'public' message being pumped out by some of the larger, loosely termed, internet companies. This shift in focus feels very reminiscent of a similar battle in the late 1980s early 90s between what was then tech companies, at that time the battle was mostly played out between the then twin forces of strength, at the time, Microsoft and IBM.(1) Back then the battle ground was over the tools one used in an office environment and the pitched war was between Word perfect, already flagging due to its age and rigidity, IBM with its Lotus suite and the might of Microsoft Office Suite. We all know the outcome, Microsoft won by a mixture of flexibility, distribution of it's operating system(a) and public perception control.

This new war seeks to go a little deeper and is not just your office software suite, it is your whole ecosystem and maybe the entire of your internet environment. Computers are ubiquitous to business, I personally cannot conceive of how anyone can exist without one. Even our submissions to authorities, that painful process that we victims of the revenue mill share, is all conducted electronically. As we move further into the realms of an interconnected world with smart homes and the 'Internet of Things' the use of computers will become closely tied to our whole 'life' experience.[2] The new battleground is your whole experience and the big players know that this is a fractured landscape with a consumer focus on personal preference and individuality of experience.

To control this whole battle ground the competing armies need to control all the various elements in the environment. The rise of mobile computing with sophisticated roaming devices of increasing complexity for reduced size has blurred the field, we are rarely offline and when we are the connected world is still working and processing our presence (or lack of). To conduct this war the combatants need our compliance, we are the troops, or in this war we are increasingly just a resource as it is not our corporeal form but the by-products of our interaction and purchasing potential, that make up their vast armies.

The strategies used by the mega-corporations may seem unusual, and often they seem reactionary and directionless,[3] but taken as a whole campaign they are not. Let's examine some of the players and what I think is the battle, these are by no means all the people fighting, but they represent some of the most visible movers. We are going to examine this against a simplified understanding that the only way to make money in business is to;

a) sell more or have more consumers; b) increase costs; c) sell more services to existing services.

Quite obviously by doing all three we become vastly more profitable.

Facebook

Starts as a social media site that attracts millions (now apparently billions) of followers. They succeed in presenting a shared environment for the exchange of social data and collaboration. The first elements of real business come with advertisements and games, there are also promoted posts and the hidden, very profitable, data collection and analysis.

Using a small number of capital investors Facebook grows to a large size. After collecting enough users to become a world-changing force Facebook goes commercial and starts to develop plans to utilise those users. So we start with more advertising and data collection, this alienates users so the strength of that is pulled back and more control to change/block it is formed. This is all irrelevant as the data either anonymously or not is still collected, processed and controlled.[4] We have even seen that Facebook is moving towards controlling data delivery by creating tools to search, categorise and verify the news data for delivery.(c) Without the conspiracy theories that could easily be applied to this it is still a filter to experience and understanding, and filters by their nature restrict. It is also a clear land grab on the services Google has perfected.

However Facebook is still seen as a sink of time to many businesses. The first approach to combat this negative perception by Facebook was to promote the use of their services to promote your business. This was obviously an added attraction that was never part of the original conception. The mere fact that it is individuals who own business pages and groups, not the businesses themselves at the start was evidence of this. There is also the controversial insistence on 'real' names and 'real' people have ownership of accounts. This was mirrored in many ways by Google with their Google+ services. Both of these are counter-intuitive in dealing with people before we even consider the business implications. A business would be better served by using its own name for any services to detach it from any one individual, the ownership status and connected account makes this impossible and makes the whole situation confused.

Facebook has started the integration of shops and merchant services culminating in the recent announcement of business tools and a more business-orientated Facebook. This is taking their business from the consumer to the company.[6]

Google

Starts as a search engine and data filter, it controls the flow of data and classifies it using a ranking system then upsells a method to advertise using a priority system with a variable scale of cost. This is a hugely successful as a business endeavour as it almost creates the whole field of data collection and classification for profit.[7]

Even in the days of the 'do no evil' tagline(d), now abandoned, Google was a commercial venture who existed to make a profit and its focus was aimed more at business than the individual. The tools that were given to us for free seek to fill its massive data warehouses with searchable statistical material that massively empowers their main profit stream.

However there has always been an attempt to grab the consumer, and this is not as most people think an over-reaction to the forces of social media. Google was well aware of the need to control and use the non-commercial space and this has powered its delivery of services for many years. Mail, Docs, Maps, Plus, Drive, Images, Search all of these tools start their main life in the non-commercial world but Google's endgame has always been to integrate an experience. They realised far earlier than some of the other competition that people want to use the same tools at home as they do at work. It is a lesson learned from Microsoft who gave away an Office suite (Microsoft Works) and an Operating System at either no cost or vastly reduced (OEM for the Operating system and Office Suite) cost to both commercial and to non-commercial users to encourage using their operating system. To my mind this is why Android was offered at almost no cost to the end consumer and pushed so strongly to the hardware manufacturers who would prove to cause the majority of the obstacles and issues.

Twitter

In our World War Twitter is an island chain not connected to any continent. Self-governed and remote, owing no allegiance to any of the other competitors. It is a fast moving place with the chance for rapid evolution however all it has are bodies to throw over the wall, there are few other tools to submit to this current fight. How it changes that will be interesting to watch.

Apple and Microsoft (throw in Sony and Samsung etc.)

These are the big names in the hardware world who also act large in software. Microsoft has always encouraged an open hardware environment whereas Apple have always seemed to be a hardware dongle for the software.

The dominance in hardware sales and profits from Apple cannot be ignored. They are the super rich(e) with the manpower and resources to dominate and they have a fanatical following who willing throw themselves at the enemy in a frenzied rage. Some of their issue is that level of perfection, in the war for business it is not just hearts and minds but convenience and cost and there are signs that the shift in their appeal is losing pace in some sectors.(f) Apple does not fare well in this, they have only recently felt the need to make their software import the formats of others, but the reverse is rarely true. That shouldn't dismiss them, this is a long and harsh fight and their resources and strength will hold them in good standing. Their innovation is in perfecting what exists to such a degree that it is almost unrecognisable from the thing that inspired it. Added to this a lead in the market share for purchase of applications and services, and the associated purchase of goods, will further the advance of Apple Pay as a default choice for online payments and further increase their dominance.

Microsoft is a great sprawling octopus with arms into every area of our lives. It may have lost a lot of ground in the last decade and look punch-drunk and confused but it still controls the business space. They do not hold the mindshare anymore and are the butt of most people's immediate ridicule. It almost seems easy to categorise them as the public demon of technology demon and they have not been dealing with the cool aid but to dismiss them is a fallacy. Microsoft has a good sense for business and a long tradition of succeeding in lengthy fights.

For these companies their strength seems to be in providing the basic environment in which we conduct our daily lives and to control then the field as we further integrate our at work/at home experience.

The issue is that mobile devices let the field change beneath them, Android is ubiquitous and Apple, even with their reassuring brand identity, are playing catch up to the emerging mobile business field.[8] They are seen too much as a consumer device. Microsoft seek to control by offering their strongest weapon, Office Suite, across the broad spectrum and to purchase more of the business services with Sales and CRM software that integrates into your whole corporate stage. Apple seek to dominate by mindshare and loyalty (hearts and minds). Meanwhile Google and Facebook pull more users into their fold and seek to control the biggest weapon, mass resources in the form of data.

Fringe Players in a Data War

The control of Data and the usage of your data in experience is where the real war is being fought. Amazon have entered the fray with low price technological offerings that are high quality, they do not need to make much profit from the sale of the hardware as the real focus is the consumer experience/purchases and data retention. The same is true of the Hudl from Tesco and to some degree the Chromebooks from Google.

Amazon's, and to some extent Tesco's, only focus is the consumer retention, growth and sales. They can only increase their profits by gaining more people and selling more things. Offering a more expensive sale is redundant in a world that values bargains, especially since bargains or under-cutting the competition has been their primary business focus. However, they must make the move into control of the purchase managers and buyers in business as this will increase their long-term power. For the present they are on the fringes of the Data War, seeking to control just one aspect, sales, and to hold it tightly. They are well ahead of the field in that they are the purveyors of the items, or control the purchase, how they will be affected by the increasing march of Apple and Google financial services and the inevitable Microsoft and Facebook offers will prove as an interesting aside to our main conflict.

Business is the Goal

But the control of the Business ecosystem is the real prize for all of these companies. For the vast majority of individuals the software, hardware and day-to-day experience they deal in work affects the choices they make as an individual consumer. We want a single unified experience and it is the goal of the modern internet giants to provide that experience. This extends to the control of the physical environment in both the home and at business and the places between.[9]

Businesses also provide a longer term experience for the combatants. People are often fickle and their loyalties, no matter how keenly held, can be won and sometimes bought. However companies are slow to change as the surrounding costs are too great to suffer. Holding the businesses gives you a base for launching further efforts, it is how Microsoft and Apple have weathered so well despite their reticence over the Search Engine and Social Media marketplaces that have become dominant forces.[10] Businesses are also more likely to adopt whole environmental ecosystems as the benefits of a single service provider in regards to compatibility, payments and expansion are easier to understand.

Socially we have merged the two worlds of business and home, we use social media at work and answer our work emails at home. There is no one location and each person has varying levels of interaction. But we are all mass-data producers and controlling that data allows for the tailored delivery of product to consumers and that is where the combatants seek to hold strength. It is how they will tailor specific services and give the illusion of individual experience that holds our fascination and encourages us to give up more of our personal information.

In the end more data can be collected, stored and analysed but it is far from infinite, it's just vast in size and growing exponentially. We may be a vast resource but we are also a finite resource and that data is useless without context and control. It isn't just what data you hold, it is where and how you can use it and how others will use it on your behalf that is the next battlefront.





Notes

[1] Apple was a strong force at the same time but not quite so dominant a force in the particular battle.

[2] This sounds a little dramatic but the use of computer systems has become so ingrained with our everyday lives that almost every experience can be traced to it. Even the rugged explorer in a get away from it all walk in the wilderness would carry at least a map that would have been prepared using computers to verify detail, most of them would likely be using a electronic GPS.

[3] There is an element of truth in the vague accusation that can be bandied about vague, and directionless, marketing and strategy by big companies who release expensive products and then disband them, or make vast acquisitions to mothball the product. To answer this we might imagine that any good commander will tell you that combat is a fluid environment forces change and swift adaption to a shifting landscape. However, there are a number of answers that make good tactical sense. The removal of competing products; acquisition of staff hires by take-over; ownership of emergent ideas and patents etc.

[4] There is also the Orwellian[5] level of control used by Facebook as a test to show how they could manipulate opinion.(b)

[5] I did quibble about using the term Orwellian as it has become so over-used it has started to descend into a meaningless cliché. However most of that over-use is in respect to the camera-obsessed societies that we have created and not to the deeper ideas of population control via information that I am referring to here.

[6] One of the major contributing factors that isn't discussed in depth in this article is the need for these companies to utilise the large developer teams that they have internally. There is too much discussion about how and why these teams exist and the opportunities, threats and forces they direct and that act upon them for this piece.

[7] It would be incorrect to say that Google created this model, they just capitalised on it in a creative manner with enough pressure to gain a vast market share.

[8] However Apple still dominate in all sales and purchases by mobile devices. They are far and away the most dominant tablet seller and this is a principal force in that position.(g)

[9] We have already seen the birth of the control of transportation with WiFi on public transport, to the purchase of transport routes (Google in San Fransisco) to the creation of robotic transportation. Will the Google car work more efficiently if you are fully plugged in to a Google Environment. Our connected lives see the car arriving to pick you up as the phone detects you logging off your office computer, at home the environment will be primed for your arrival to the moment. The benefits to this are efficientcy, once again Orwell would likely marvel at the way we willingly give up ourselves, we build the room and number it.

[10] For Apple the rise of Social Media has been a pleasant boost as their devout followers are also ardent evangelists.





References

(a) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Lotus_SmartSuite
(b) http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds
(c) http://allfacebook.com/fb-techwire_b136275?utm_content=bufferf43ea&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
(d) http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/03/larry-page-google-dont-be-evil-sergey-brin
(e) http://finance.yahoo.com/news/apple-hits-record-high-700-192856081.html
(f) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5cbede9c-78b0-11e4-b518-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Kd1UP1JB
(g) http://finance.yahoo.com/news/apples-ios-once-again-decimated-203835070.html




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