Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Why should IS executives continue to watch today’s Tech Oligopoly?

Walt Mossberg, the popular tech columnist who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Recode and The Verge announced his retirement in a final column (link) that reflects on the significance of some of the recent technology trends. In a section titled “The oligopoly” he highlights that much of the new technology that “we and others can learn about and report about, is coming from the giant companies that make up today’s tech oligopoly — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.”

Mossberg isn’t alone in this prognosis. Farhad Manjoo in his New York Times column titled “Tech’s Frightful Five: They’ve Got Us” also picks on the “frightful five” to drive home a similar point. At first glance, terms like “Oligopoly” and “Tech overlords” sound a bit strong and ominous, but they certainly make one sit back and take note.

Image from New York Times

Four out of these big-five have a stronghold on my digital life. I began thinking about this and realized that like many other consumers, a large part of my tech spend and digital-time pass through these big-five. Much of my eCommerce spend is on and its global sites. To be fair, I begin showrooming for purchases and actively window-shop on other sites. In many cases, I eventually find myself back at Amazon – price and service does matter! For my work and after-work digital activities, I alternate between my Microsoft Surface and iPad. Most of my personal data is backed up on Google’s cloud and my personal blogs are hosted by big-G. MS Office is still my go-to choice: I have tried other SaaS/OpenSource Office solutions, but none can come close to the real deal. I alternate my search between google and bing. I am less active on Facebook; and prefer Microsoft’s LinkedIn for my daily Dopamine fix.

Of course, like many consumers, I continue to explore digital platforms going beyond the reach of these five, for more specialized needs. Taxact has me on the hook for my federal tax returns and eBay and craigslist for niche shopping. For my travel, I start with Google Flights but switch to individual airlines, hotels and Uber.

Does the ‘Tech Oligopoly’ extend into corporate IT too?

In the late nineties, Microsoft began expanding into the corporate IT segment with its desktop, server and database solutions. Its Azure platform continues to be number-1 or number-2 in Public cloud adoption, counting many Fortune-500 and global organizations as its clients. Amazon recently began announcing its AWS cloud earnings, which at $5 billion is more than the sales of many other tech companies. And Google also continues to slowly expand its public cloud footprint in the corporate world.

Apple has been focused on consumer digitization space, but with most large organizations adopting some form of BYOD, iPhones and iPads are now part of corporate uniforms. Facebook has primarily been focused on social networking among individuals, not corporates.

These Tech-Oligopolies have also been investing billions of dollars on Research and Development (R&D) in niche technology areas. Last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai proclaimed a move from mobile first to an AI first world. The big-five continue to lead with innovations in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR, AR), and machine learning.

The innovative startups and entrepreneurs in this space are being closely watched and many are being incubated by the-big five. And the most promising startups are being actively pursued and bought-out by big-five to feed their voracious R&D demand.

What does this all mean to corporate IT?

  • Presence of the oligarchs can reduce a consumer’s negotiating power (Business 101): This is already visible in the public cloud space where CIOs, IS executives and their procurement teams are wringing their hands over the ‘rack rates’ being offered by the big-three – AWS, Azure and Google. To be fair, the public cloud offerings are starting to look so similar – with high SLAs, geo-location and availability of vendor tools and service provider ecosystem – that discounting from standard rates may not even make sense.  
  • Not all corporate IT applications are suitable to move to the public cloud. A share of corporate portfolio will continue to be hosted in dedicated data centers or considered suitable for VPC, IaaS or PaaS hosting. This is where much of the negotiations are now focused. The lowering cost of public cloud has certainly put pressure on service providers.
  • Emerging Technologies. Review of annual reports indicates that the big-five plan an annual spend of nearly $60 Billion on R&D, much of it on emerging technologies, techniques and tools in areas like AI, VR, Big-data and analytics, and blockchain. Some of the innovations at these companies continue in stealth mode, and much of it is being used to enhance their ‘backend’ capabilities. However, researchers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others are approaching their R&D with academic rigor by periodically publishing their findings, and collaborating actively with open source communities. (link: research out of Google, Microsoft, Facebook) They are even pushing some of their AI and analytics tools as cloud based services, hoping early adapters will contribute to the alpha/beta-testing efforts.

Corporate IT leaders and their business counterparts are observing and learning from innovations coming from the big-five. Some CIOs and their teams are proactively engaging their business stakeholders driving corporate digitization initiatives by piloting AI, VR or blockchain based use-cases.

Bottomline: Corporate Enterprise Architects and design teams should actively seek opportunities to leverage the platforms and tools from big-five for low-cost pilots and proof of concepts.

[Reposted from my LinkedIn Pulse post]

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