Leaving the Land of the Giants

The next revolution will be personal. Just like the last three were.

The cover of the December 1st–7th 2012 issue of The Economist shows four giant squid battling each other (http://www.economist.com/printedition/2012-12-01). The headline reads, "Survival of the biggest: The internet's warring giants". The squid are Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Inside, the story is filed under "Briefing: Technology giants at war". The headline below the title graphic reads, "Another game of thrones" (http://www.economist.com/news/21567361-google-apple-facebook-and-amazon-are-each-others-throats-all-sorts-ways-another-game). The opening slug line reads "Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are at each other's throats in all sorts of ways." (Raising the metaphor count to three.)

Now here's the question: Is that all that's going on? Is it not possible that, in five, ten or twenty years we'll realize that the action that mattered in the early twenty-teens was happening in the rest of the ocean, and not just among the mollusks with the biggest tentacles?

War stories are always interesting, and very easy to tell because the format is formulaic. Remember Linux vs. Microsoft, personalized as Linus vs. Bill? Never mind that Linux as a server OS worked from the start with countless millions (or even billions) of Windows clients. Or that both Linus and Bill had other fish to fry from the start. But personalization is cheap and easy, and there was enough antipathy on both sides to stoke the story-telling fires, so that's what we got. Thus, today we might regard Linux as a winner and Microsoft as a loser (or at least trending in that direction). The facts behind (or ignored by) the stories mostly say that both entities have succeeded or failed largely on their own merits.

Here's a story that illustrates how stories can both lead and mislead.

The time frame was the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the "war" was between CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_instruction_set_computing) and RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reduced_instruction_set_computing). The popular CPUs at the time were CISC, and the big two CISC competitors were Intel's x86 and Motorola's 68000. Intel was winning that one, so Motorola and other chip makers pushed RISC as the Next Big Thing. Motorola had an early RISC lead with the 88000 (before later pivoting to the PowerPC).

At the time, I was working with Sun Microsystems and its allies on SPARC, Sun's RISC design, which was implemented in various ways by a raft of chip makers, including Texas Instruments, Fujitsu and Cypress Semiconductor. In spite of Sun's heft in the marketplace, we had trouble getting attention for SPARC with the tech pubs, because they tended to see everything as an Intel vs. Motorola fight. We felt we couldn't challenge either one of those guys head-on, even if SPARC was superior on technical grounds (which Sun and its partners believed). So we decided the best strategy was for SPARC to pick a fight with another RISC upstart called MIPS.

This was pure bait for the pubs, which came over to this new fight to see what was up. I think we caught MIPS off guard at first, but it defended itself well and ended up selling years later for hundreds of $millions to SGI, which eventually went bankrupt. SPARC is still around, running gear made by Oracle, which acquired Sun. The big winner in the CPU market remained Intel and, therefore, CISC. In fact, the x86 architecture still rules, at least on PCs and servers, but not in mobile devices, where ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) now kicks butt. And for what it's worth, MIPS is now fighting ARM in the Android market, and Motorola's chip division is the long-since-spun-off ON Semiconductor.

So, five points here:

  1. Vendors use stories as marketing strategies.

  2. Vendor war coverage is always to some degree an exercise in misdirection (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misdirection_(magic)), even when journalistic intentions are worthy ones.

  3. The real story is always much more complicated than vendor war coverage can characterize.

  4. "Winners" never win forever, especially in tech.

  5. "Losers" don't always die. Often they stay alive by selling out, or they thrive by finding niches and working them.

Now back to our four squid.

The graphic above The Economist story is a antique-style map (http://media.economist.com/sites/default/files/cf_images/images-magazine/2012/12/01/FB/20121201_FBD000.png) of the fantasy-fiction kind, drawn by David Parkins (http://www.davidparkins.com). It shows a large mountainous land, with the Sea of Content to the west and the Sea of Commerce to the east. Dividing the land are four throne-doms: Applechia, Google Earth, Amazonia and Fortress Facebook. A fifth, Empire of the Microserfs, is across the Sea of Content in the northwest corner of the map, bordered by the Cliffs of Surface. In Google Earth are Adsense-land, the Mirkwood of Regulation, the Wastes of Litigation ("Here be lawyers"), Pagerank Pinnacle (at the end of Algorithm Reach), beside which lies The Firth of Android. Appleacia has the iPhone Keep. Amazon has the Cloud Mountains and a volcano named Kindle. Between the latter and Netflix Nation (which lies above the Satrapy of Spotify) intrudes Pirate Bay. Offshore are the eBook Islands. On the opposite shore are OneClick Castle and Prime Port. Somewhere in the middle, between the Cloud Mountains and Fortress Facebook is the Lost City of MySpace. Out in the Sea of Content are small islands called RIM Rocks and Nokia. Atop the map is The Dark Offline. Floating in the Sea of Commerce is a Chinese junk flying the Samsung banner. A peninsula in the southeast corner features Secondhand City, the Bay of E and the Cape of Coin. There's a dragon smiling out of the Sea of Commerce, named The Next Big Thing. Finally, in the center of the map, between the four thronedoms, is an un-named body of water surrounding Identity Island.

Parkins' antique style also depicts antique substance in the making—because all four of the thrones (or squid, take your pick) are at least as affected by their own weaknesses as by the strengths of companies they are said to be fighting. And, because so many of us are at their mercy, their weaknesses are to some degree ours as well.

So let's look at those weaknesses, and then at where the rest of the action is, because neither are getting enough attention.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal


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A good read

DLJ-1942's picture

One can only wish the author will be proved right in his conclusion, but I am afraid the future will be much darker. At least where I live, being hooked up to 'the net' is already practically mandatory. We may very soon become literal serfs under constant and total surveillance and control. There is probably no escape possible - not even through legislation.

Advertising? What advertising?

ChrisJ's picture

I didn't know there was advertising on Facebook or Google; I use AdBlock.

Brilliant --and highly hopeful-- analysis!

Joseph Horgan's picture

The pattern of the struggle was set at the birth of computing: Will we use the power of computing to replace the human experience --Artificial Intelligence-- or to personalize and *augment* the human experience? AI is the corporate squid model. Augmentation is the personal model.