The Four Horsemen of Tech

Thanks to The Economist and TechCrunch, there is now apparently an elite four in the tech world: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. These are the companies that will apparently shape the near and medium term future in tech. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has proposed (and rightfully, I think) that Samsung be added as a fifth member.

Nearly any article on this quartet has its contents section overwhelmed by missives about the injustice of Microsoft’s omission from this group. This surprises me. Not because it’s an unreasonable argument but because it gets raised before: “why is Facebook in this group?

Zuckerberg et al are here in the same breadth with the world’s most valuable corporation (Apple), its most prolific mobile software developer (Google), and its preeminent online retailer and cloud provider (Amazon). If you add Samsung, then you get to also include the world largest phone maker. By contrast, Facebook is a website that sells a relatively modest number of ads. Whereas the other players have their fingers in numerous pies and are seeking more and more dominion over digital life, Facebook is essentially playing defense against startups.

By that I mean Facebook’s every move is driven by its obsession with protecting its website, which Business Insider once surmised was perhaps just a latter-day form of webmail, a portal not unlike Yahoo! thru which users would go to check statuses and maybe click some ads. Yahoo! has a multibillion dollar business, but then again, its not often mentioned as one of the elite four of tech.

The last major innovation Facebook made was the News Feed, which was met with comical outrage upon its original release – it is now essentially the best reason for using Facebook. Timeline only rearranged the profile display, while Subscribe was a knee-jerk reaction to Twitter. Meanwhile, products like Questions and Poke tried and failed to compete with Quora and Snapchat, respectively.

Business Insider in its aforementioned story offered that 2013 was make or break for Facebook becoming a hub of music discovery. This seems fair – Facebook has had a long, long time to become a “platform,” but it really has not succeeded except as a means of playing Zynga games or fake slot machines. Facebook is currently more a destination rather than a true portal – it resembles Yahoo! even more in this respect, since the key difference between Yahoo! and Google is that people simply go to Yahoo! to read mail and maybe click a story, then leave, whereas Google is the gateway to the Web

By playing defense all the time, first against Instagram and now against Snapchat, I’m not sure that Facebook has left itself much space to drive into more aggressive forward looking products. Why didn’t they think of a sexting asp first, when Facebook Messenger has over 50 million users? How did the world’s largest photo repository miss the simple social charm of Instagram?

That said, using Facebook is almost a basic necessity for keeping in touch, something that is the envy of every other app in existence. It’s almost as humdrum as email by now, even if its mobile apps are just confusing, overcrowded concoctions (its Android app became tolerable with the introduction of native code, but is still by far the worst-performing app I’ve ever used on my Nexus 4, which is remarkable given all the garbage in Google Play).

But it’s fragile, and it’s still just a website at heart. Think of the massive sea-change that would need to occur for Apple, Amazon, Samsung, or Google to become irrelevant and/or be forced to make an impulse buy of a direct competitor. Facebook may yet graduate to their league, but I think the question isn’t whether Samsung is horseman #5, but whether Facebook should even be horseman #4.

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