Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft: The Next Round in the Battle of the Ecosystems

By Peter Bernstein October 11, 2012

Mark your calendars.  Today is a day where we have been treated to the revelation of what is really going on in the battle between the tech giants for market supremacy. To say the least, there is what those in the military call “a target rich environment.” The Internet is abuzz.

Google vs. Apple sounds familiar

Let’s start with the statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Speaking to the tech blog AllThingsDigital at the Nwork 92nd Street Y, Schmidt heated up the blogosphere by saying not only does he expect more than a billion devices around the world to be running his Android software within a year, but he called Google’s battle with Apple a “defining fight.” He went on to add that “We’ve not seen…competitive fights of this scale.” This was short and sweet, but actually a mouthful.

I seem to remember over the years numerous tech industry headlines about battles of titans for world domination. A few that come to mind are:

  • IBM vs. everyone else in the computer industry which led to antitrust action
  • Ditto on AT&T vs. everyone in the communications world which led to the breakup of Ma Bell
  • Microsoft vs. IBM
  • Microsoft vs. Netscape
  • HP vs. all other printer makers

You get the picture, as every few years in some market we see these struggles but we have never seen a battle of this scale. That is until we see another one.  And, many of these have been about either some company getting control of the device market, the Internet or both. 

Microsoft’s Ballmer chimes in

With a much deserved tip of the hat to TMC CEO Rich Tehrani, if not for his blog I would have missed Microsoft CEO’s recent shareholder letter which seems to have Apple on its mind and Google too. As Tehrani explains, Ballmer attempts to make a case as to why Microsoft is developing certain devices by basically sticking his thumb in the eye of other members of the ecosystem for not producing better products than Microsoft seems to want to run its software on. 

My goodness! The arrogance given the Microsoft track record of developing devices from business telephones to set-tops for cable TV to mobile phones and “E”verything in between is (and I will be polite) problematic. Other than the successful Xbox, it is hard to point to a Microsoft hardware success. Indeed, they seem to be much better at extracting fees from Android manufactures like HTC then when literally left to their own devices.

Truth is that what Tehrani forgot to make one salient point. This is not different than Google buying Motorola’s wireless device operations — which many in the industry have howled at as the way for Google to continue to make life miserable for the device part of its ecosystem.

Back to the matter at hand 

Schmidt has a point about the battle at hand. In one major way, we have not seen a battle quite like this. Previously, such battles for supremacy and world domination have been between entities in the same or adjacent markets, e.g., software, PCs, printers, browsers, etc. We are now in the battle of the ecosystems, albeit where for the most part one company dictates terms and conditions of all its members creating some interesting silos in what is supposed to be a world of choice. 

At a high level an important question must be asked. “What do these ecosystems want from us?” Money is the answer but getting use to hand over our hard-earned cash, is not that simple. At the end of the day it is about trust. In fact, it is about creating a trusted “E”vironment that you and I never feel compelled to leave, and where we feel comfortable doing all if not most of our transactions. Put another way, it is about controlling the user experience.

I posted an item recently, Who Owns the Customer Experience? Hint, Customers Do. You might wish to check it out since the answer speaks directly to the subject at hand. Whether it be Google, Apple or Microsoft the ultimate goal is to make them your portal to the world. This means both erecting toll gates when necessary or leveraging their gatekeeper function (and storehouse of your profile information) to extract large fees from those who would like to reach you aka advertisers and retailers or all makes and sizes. 

The myth is that if they control/own the user experience to the company that host my “E”verything will go the spoils. That is why Google, Apple and Microsoft keep expanding into adjacent spaces and coming up with new capabilities. Their respective manifest destinies are to keep you captivated/captive. 

The challenge when you are the commander of the ecosystem is how to strike a balance between what is core to your survivability and vitality, i.e., must be home grown and owned, and what can be farmed out to others. The real trick is either through the use of carrots and/or sticks is to keep all members of the ecosystem happy!   This is something Apple does not have to worry about as much since it is basically a closed shop and comes at dominance from a device strength position. Without going into details it is much messier for Google and Microsoft. In fact, when it comes to the folks in Redmond given the high ground is in search and smartphone OS, they have some real heartburn despite Ballmar’s painting of a pretty picture.

Where Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter play in this ecosystem jockeying remains to be seen. Plus, in a world where there is no monopoly on creativity who knows what is likely to upset the applecart next? Threats abound in old media companies, including cable and telecom service providers if they can get it right for a change. And, since we are focusing on transactional behavior, don’t rule out the big financial services companies in this race for eye, heart, mind and the real prize, wallet share.

For those of us who comment on the industry all of this warfare between vendors is wonderful. However, a cautionary note here is that as pointed out in my previous posting, despite their best efforts service providers, OTTs, device manufacturers, browser providers, location-based services, financial institutions, media companies and a long list of others do not own the customer experience. The customer does.

The Internet put us in charge, not those who seek to herd us. For those who think Google, Apple, Microsoft all can wrest control away from us, as previously asserted, “seller beware!” 

In a world of instantaneous access to great information and the competition, as the old saying here in the U.S. goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” The ending for the first Jurassic Park movie might be even a better way to close, “And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way.” Tune in next time for another competitive battle the likes of which we supposedly have not seen before.

Edited by Jamie Epstein
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