The Fight for the Interface: Who Will Be the Intermediaries of Choice?

Information and communications technologies are advancing rapidly, reshaping all aspects of our work and lives, from telecommuting to how we find information to how we interact with others.  The implications for providers of commercial goods and services are enormous, from how they manage their increasingly tech-literate workforce to how they interact with consumers and customers over time.  For the public and non-profit sectors, the changes are equally significant with new ways of connecting with constituencies, gathering tax returns or polling information to new ways of engaging communities in social activities and philanthropy.

With the data deluge increasing, there is an “attention arms race” going on – organizations are competing not only within their industry but across all industries and forms of information to gain – and keep – the attention of their consumers and customers.  It can’t be done alone.  Organizations need to manage a growing array of channels and intermediaries through which their information is filtered, aggregated and relayed to target audiences, including search engines, social networks, news sources, mobile communications providers and purchasing portals such as apps stores.  

The big question is who controls the interfaces between these organizations and their target markets or constituencies – and what does this mean for those organizations that own, use and depend on these interfaces. 

There is an increasing battle between a diverse range of intermediaries for control of these key interfaces.  The “Gang of Four” (a term from Eric Schmidt of Google) are key players shaping the future of the tech landscape, taking up the mantle from those companies who shaped the previous generations of technology, including Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco.  To date, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have had relatively clear and differentiated areas of focus and strength, but now they are increasingly starting to expand on to each other’s turf, raising the prospect of an intensifying fight to be the intermediary of choice as the internet, mobile technology and social commerce continue to advance.

 

Core strengths

Expanding their turf…

Facebook

Social

Commerce

Google

Search, video, apps

Social, devices

Apple

Devices, apps

Commerce, cloud

Amazon

Commerce, cloud

Ebooks, streaming video

 And don’t forget: Twitter, LinkedIn, Netflix, Skype (Microsoft), Renren, Alibaba, Yandex, Yahoo!, IBM   …and? Take just a few examples of what has been happening recently:

  • Microsoft and Google are engaged in acrimonious exchanges over the Novell/Nortel patent auction, while Apple and Samsung are suing and counter-suing over smartphone patents.
  • Google is moving squarely into Facebook’s turf with Google+, which has rapidly increased its membership in just the few months since launch.
  • HTML5 offers potential competition to app stores, whether Apple or Android – take the FT’s new web app which challenges Apple’s new “deal” on purchases only via iTunes.
  • Alibaba is showing interest in potentially acquiring faltering Yahoo! after the recent departure of CEO, Carol Bartz.
  • Amazon’s new tablet is laying down the gauntlet to Apple’s iPad – and with its store of content and consumer relationships, Amazon is one of the very few who could challenge Apple’s dominant tablet position.
  • Google is starting to offer full-length movies on YouTube, plus Amazon is streaming movies – what are the implications for NetFlix and Hulu?
  • Microsoft’s acquisition of VOIP leader Skype has passed regulatory hurdles in Europe, opening the way for a new communications play by Microsoft.

Competition is clearly increasing even as many of these players cooperate in other areas.  And everyone wants a piece of the action – recent social media/tech IPOs have conjured images of the 2000/2001 dotcom bubble.

However, who the winners will be is far from clear. New technologies that could reshape the competitive landscape include what Steve Rubel at Edelman Digital is calling “a perfect storm of technologies coming together that combine local, social, photo and mobile – or said another way LoSoPhoMo.” Add in the potential impact of: The post-PC world; games making inroads as tools in multiple arenas; human behaviors changing; a potential shift from apps towards HTML5; and the rise of the mobile enterprise.

Whoever the winners will be – the Gang of Four or others – they will wield significant power in future.  These are turf wars for everyone to watch.