(image) I’ve just been sent an official response from Google to the updated version of my story posted yesterday (Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?). In that story, I reported about 2009 negotiations over incorporation of Facebook data into Google search. I quoted a source familiar with the negotiations on the Facebook side, who told me “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all,” and “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not.”
I’ve now had conversations with a source familiar with Google’s side of the story, and to say the company disagrees with how Facebook characterized the negotiations is to put it mildly. I’ve also spoken to my Facebook source, who has clarified some nuance as well. To get started, here’s the official, on the record statement, from Rachel Whetstone, SVP Global Communications and Public Affairs:
“We want to set the record straight. In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported. To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”
(image) **Updated at 3 PM PST with more info about Facebook/Google negotiations…please read to the bottom…**
In today’s business climate, it’s not normal for corporations to cooperate with each other when it comes to sharing core assets. In fact, it’s rather unusual. Even when businesses do share, it’s usually for some ulterior motive, a laying of groundwork for future chess moves which insure eventual domination over the competition.
Such is the way of business, particularly at the highest and largest levels, such as those now inhabited by top Internet players.
In the post, Google extols the virtues of incorporating results such as “your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about. These wonderful people and this rich personal content is currently missing from your search experience. Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met. Today, we’re changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search.”
Amidst all the chaos, tragedy, and tumult that was 2011, I noticed one very clear theme: Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society. The 14th Amendment (yes, the one that banished slavery) established corporations, in the US, as “persons” in the legal sense. In 2010, Citizens v. United sanctified corporations as equivalent to you and I in terms of political speech; in 2011, we began to see the impact of that decision on our political process here in the US (in short, follow the money). The freedom to “associate in corporate form,” as it is termed in portions of the Citizens decision, is one I sense all of us are not entirely certain about. Corporations are utterly undemocratic organizations, and being a part of one is often not a choice, but a necessity. Does joining a corporation mean that you must defend that corporations’ point of view and now Constitutionally-protected right to speech?
Usually, at least in practice, the answer is yes. That corporation is paying your salary, and keeping food on your family’s table. Speaking out against it would be folly. This creates a tension in society that is clearly starting to surface. We overthrew the feudal system in the 1600s, and the theocracy in the 1700s. But currently, corporations play similar roles in many of our lives, either directly or indirectly.
Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement is one expression of this tension, but I’m not certain it will be the only one. Corporations are arguably the most powerful institutions in human history, more powerful than all but the largest governments. If that sounds silly, remember that the cash and cash equivalent hoard of the Internet Big Five – $180 billion and counting – is larger than the GDP of all but 50 countries. And that doesn’t account for leverage. The top 1000 corporations in the US are holding nearly a trillion dollars in pure cash.
(image) One of the things that pops out of the “Big Five” chart I just posted, at least if you stare at it a bit, are the places where each company needs to get strong, quickly. Apple is weak in social and one dimensional in ad solutions. Microsoft needs to improve its device products, build out its entertainment distribution muscle, and keep improving search share. Google wants to get better in productivity software, social, and payments. Amazon needs help in devices, social, and OS. Facebook has work to do in many areas, including devices, search, payment, and voice.
When the five largest companies in our space have a lot of needs, they tend to pull out the wallet and go shopping. Sometimes they buy their way into partnerships, but often, they simply buy.
Hence my fifth prediction for 2012: Expect Internet M&A to heat up, big time. It’s not just going to be the Big Five who drive this trend, it’ll be a whole mess of players looking to consolidate power and press into the double-digit growth market that is the Internet (and by Internet, I also mean mobile and enterprise, of course). Yahoo’s new CEO Scott Thompson knows how to buy companies and has a data focus, for example. That could mean competition to purchase marketing, ad tech, and data companies like Blue Kai, Quantcast, or MarketShare. MediaBank is on a tear and will be on the lookout for similar kinds of companies. IBM has a deep interest in the marketing tech world, expect Big Blue to make some big moves as well. And Twitter will certainly be flexing its muscles, now that it’s bulked up with nearly a billion in fresh capital.
As I have written in previous predictions, I’ve been focusing on the Internet Big Five lately, and expect that to continue this year, as the group, collectively, are something of a “character” in my upcoming book (as is Twitter, the “free radical”). Other characters include “The Government” and “Corporations,” so expect predictions about those players in the next few days. But today, I want to focus on the Big Five as a whole. I’ve been staring at these companies, trying to understand their strategic imperatives, which is why I found myself making yet another chart.
This one focuses on core product lines where all (or most) of these companies are playing. For me, these product lines, taken together, are the basis of what we might call “the operating system of our lives.” And since the book is about how we will be leveraging our lives over digital platforms in one generation, it struck me as important to assess where each of the Big Five is right now (what they have already built) and where they are weak (what they need to build to compete).
Here’s the chart:
As you can see, I’ve laid out the same five companies, listed top to bottom by market cap. From left to right are columns of various product lines or offerings that I’ve determined are crucial areas that any player in the “OS of our life” must address. I’ve keyed each company against each product line with one of four scores, from “Strong” – where a company already dominates – to “Weak” – where a company either does not play, or has an anemic offering. The terms “Developing” and “Improving” demonstrate that the company is making progress in that area, from either a weak position (“Developing”) or a middling position (“Improving”).
By some Mayan accounts, 2012 is not going to be a good year for any of us. But in this prediction, I’m going to focus on one company that will have a pretty crazy year: Google.
Now, I’m not predicting the company will lose revenue or profits in its core business of search, but rather that Larry Page’s first full year as CEO will be challenging, due in part to decisions made (or not made) back in 2011, and in part to the inherent complications of the businesses where Google now plants its flag.
I’ve got candidates for what those decisions were (Google+ real names’ policy, buying all of Motorola Mobility, not elegantly stewarding Android, muddying the search waters by favoring its own properties), but I think they all boil down to one core thing: Google has often brought products to market before they were fully ready, then played catch up with the competition against a roiling tide of conflicted partners, grandstanding policy makers, and confused consumers. It all adds up to a massive challenge that I think will come to a head in 2012.
For my third prediction of the year, I’m going with one just a tad bit less obvious than “Facebook will go public.” There seems to be no doubt about that event occurring this year, though I’ve certainly heard intelligent folks argue that Facebook can and should figure out how to stay private. I’ve argued that Facebook ought to be a public company, if only to be held (somewhat) accountable given all the data it has on our lives.
But this prediction has to do with Facebook announcing and then launching a web-wide advertising network along the lines of Google’s AdSense. I’ve talked about this for years (short handing it as “FaceSense,”) and I’ve asked Mark Zuckerberg, Carolyn Everson, Bret Taylor, and Sheryl Sandberg about it on stage and off. The answer is always the same: We’re not interested in launching a web ad network at this time.
I predict that line will change in 2012. Here’s why:
My predictions this year will be pretty focused on the Internet Big Five (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) but the first two focus on Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is poised to become a critical “free radical” whose presence affects the actions of all the Big Five players. And 2012 will be the year this becomes readily apparent. In short: In 2012, every Big Five Internet company will need to have a clear Twitter strategy. At the moment, not all of them do.
What do I mean when I use the term “free radical”? Well, taken loosely from molecular chemistry and biology, free radicals are particles with open shells or unpaired electrons – they cause change in otherwise stable systems. I take the term with a bit more license, however – to me Twitter is the only Internet service at scale that has yet to ossify into a predictable platform with a massive revenue base to protect. This fact, plus the company’s liberal philosophical bent toward free speech, positions Twitter as something of a shape-shifting arms merchant in the ongoing battle between the Internet Big Five. Believe me, any one of the Five would kill to own Twitter, several of them have tried to buy the company over the past few years. It’s now clear that Twitter’s path is one of independence. To succeed, it must become the Swiss bank of social intent, providing its services in some kind of useful way to each and every one of the Big Five.
2011 has already set the table for how this year is going to play out. In short, Microsoft and Apple embraced Twitter, Google and Facebook rejected it, and Amazon stayed on the sidelines, for the most part.
A couple of weeks ago I met with the CEO of TextPlus, and wrote up my experience here. I mentioned he has some news coming, and this is it: TextPlus, which is a popular free text messaging service, is launching free calling between TextPlus members today. Calling to regular lines is pretty cheap to boot (like 99 cents for 40 minutes).
Why am I writing this up? Because it makes me wonder….TextPlus is a fast growing service that is leveraged over the Apple iOS world I call AppWorld. It serves at the whim of a gatekeeper, in this case, Apple (you can also get it for Android, which is growing faster). Apple, in turn, must keep its carriers happy by selling tons of iPhones (and iPads) with plans that lock customers into paying a pretty penny for data and voice connectivity. And I am not sure those carriers are happy with the idea of a fast growing app that helps teenagers (TextPlus’ main constituency) bypass those profitable service plans. It’s like a built in way to teach the next generation of customers how to cut the cord.
Sure, there’s always Skype and Google Hangouts and such, so perhaps this isn’t such a big deal. But then again, maybe it is. With Wifi coverage growing quickly these days, TextPlus – perhaps the name now should be CommPlus – is one to watch, IMHO.