In 2015, the planet is populated by about 7 billion people, a large majority untethered and connected via a variety of devices to the Network. Virtual connections erase time and borders; six degrees of separation; dynamic social and commerce networks; rich, secure and adaptive digital identities; tens of billions of network aware objects pulse their signals in the ether to data crunching, automated server farms.
A complex system of hardware and software suppliers underpin the 'IP Everywhere' network, and the major compute, storage, data, application and network grids (operated by a few extremely large providers and their subsidiaries), carrying trillions of content and communication bits to their destinations.
The world is flat, and the massive digital infrastructure is mostly delivered and managed by large-scale providers of non-scarce commodities--computer cycles, storage, bandwidth--providing metered capacity on demand and participating in marketplaces/auctions that trade in compute resources.
But who has the direct connection with the customer? Does anyone 'own' the customer? The Internet is not owned by any single entity. The billions of users vote with their clicks and digital wallets. Switching costs are low and barriers to entry for competitors are low. Users have choice.
If so, then why does it seem like the battle brewing among Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, as the principle protagonists, for the soul of the user, isn't particularly strong on choice and diversity. It's a few Web metropoli playing a form of leapfrog.
As it is shaping up now, the new megaliths may not own their customers, but they are doing what they can in this emergent time, building out their services, in parallel, and focusing on bringing more value to consumers of their brands, mostly with the same set of features. Pick your favorite flavor...
It's all about getting to large scale as rapidly as possible. It's necessary for the ad-supported business model and creating audiences to consume movies and music, watch TV, make phone calls, buy products, play games, book travel, interact, politic, live virtually, create content. It is the new economy. Having billions to invest in product and brand development helps.
When growth slows, they buy up more territory (services, adjacent businesses) and invent new ways to monetize users, mining the data, and keep them engaged. Harvesting what individuals do online and within a branded 'portal,' and investing in machine learning technology, can lead to better online experiences, more relevancy and target information for users. On the other hand, it can lead to abuses, privacy violations and all kinds of undesirable outcomes.
In quenching the thirst for scale, AOL will likely be snapped up by Microsoft or perhaps Google for a very inflated cost per user price, unless Time Warner thinks it has the stomach to stay in the services portal game. Amazon, eBay/Skype will eventually be sucked into one of the megaliths. InterActiveCorp properties could be dismembered, sold off to megaliths or others trying to break into the big game. New entrants from other parts of the world will stake out large user segments in their geographies and look to extend out as U.S. brands have done.
People complain about Microsoft's attempts at world domination, but it's not difficult to see Google and Yahoo, in addition to Microsoft, attempting to consolidate power, in terms of acquisitions to increase time spent online and number of users. It comes naturally, and the theme of domination, or at least creating a larger market, runs through history and human DNA. It's just business, but it often turns very ugly. Microsoft is trying to reinvent itself as a services-oriented company, and has at least given some hints of more 'openness,' but just how open remains to be seen. When companies start talking about not having evil intentions, you have to wonder...
The goal of all the companies hoping to win the Web portal ratings sweepstakes, and take home the larger portion of profits from global spending, is to provide value to customers, who tend to be good judges of what has value, especially when more than a few choices exist, which may be an issue down the road. Switching costs are supposedly low. But unless users are able to take their preferences, configurations, personal data and other parts of their securely protected digital identities with them--they own it--and have the capability to use that information on another site at their discretion, switching costs will be high, which won't benefit users. Isn't that right Steve Gillmor? No more walled gardens?