Russell Davies: Shaquille O'Neal ushers in next stage of the Tech Wars

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Russell Davies
Russell Davies

A Fast Company article did the rounds a few weeks ago, predicting the "Great Tech War of 2012" - a titanic struggle "for the future of the innovation economy" between Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Combatants scathingly described by a commenter on MetaFilter as "two advertising syndicates, a metastasized ipo scam, and a luxury gadget brand". Other commenters have not been slow to point out the absence of Microsoft from that list. And Nokia. And IBM. And Yahoo!. And any company outside North America. In some ways, it's not really a technology list, it's about that particular sort of media/technology hybrid business that the networked world has thrown up. The article could just as plausibly have been titled the "Great Media War of 2012".

Interestingly, though, while all these companies are clearly commercially and culturally dominant right now, their businesses are based on other people's stuff, on material that other people make, write, play, sing or create - the stuff we've learned to call content. With the exception of Apple's nifty line in devices, these companies don't make much themselves - they're there to connect people and content or people and things and to skim some money off the top.

A few years ago, that might have seemed a pretty precarious basis for domination of the media-technology sector. Indeed, if that article had been written a decade or so ago, it might have been about AOL or Sony, and it would have detailed how these companies were looking to own their own content; to connect themselves to movie studios or publishers or TV companies. And then, a follow-up piece, a few years later, would have reported just how hard that transition turned out to be - how owning and running a connectivity company or a hardware business is really, scarily different to owning a film studio or a broadcaster. The technology people got burned by their relationships with "talent". This hasn't happened this time around, though. Facebook hasn't bought a TV station, Apple hasn't bought EMI - or Coldplay. Who could blame them? They're doing splendidly well without being bothered by the economics of talent and unpredictable public taste.

But, maybe, things are starting to change. Google, for instance, has just spent a rumoured $150 million on exclusive content for YouTube. The next few months will see the launch of a hundred niche channels with professionally produced content - ranging from an urban comedy network brought to you by Shaquille O'Neal to a channel that asks: "What happens when a celebrity science teacher transforms a simple experiment into an unforgettable experience?" I love the modesty of this; it's not much money for Google - it's dipping a toe, clearly reluctant to embrace content-ownership. But maybe it's the next phase of the Tech Wars.


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