Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are in a messy, no-holds-barred struggle for control of the Internet. Want a handy way to imagine it? Picture a Bingo board.
Right now, five companies are battling it out to control the time and money you spend on the Internet.
Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are facing off in what Farhad Manjoo has called "the great tech war of 2012" -- the fight for supremacy over the mobile web*. Each combatant wants to be Silicon Valley's next hegemon. That's meant expanding beyond the businesses that made them big in the first place and waging war on their competitors' turf. It's a sprawling, multi-front struggle being fought out over cloud servers, smartphone screens, app stores, and ad networks.
There are a number of ways to think about what's going on. In his in-depth take for Fast Company, Manjoo called it the "moat" approach to corporate war: Each company is trying to use its new ventures to build a big, fat protective barrier around their money maker. Google, for instance, uses its mobile operating system, Android, to ensure its search engine stays the most popular in the world.
Another way to see it is that every major player is trying to become a one-stop shop for all your internet needs. Call it the Walmartization of the Web. That means providing the hardware, the applications, and the media you crave, in order to make sure you don't go visit a competitor's store. Amazon wants you to surf, shop, and watch all on the Kindle Fire. Others have talked about how companies are now creating ecosystems, instead of single products. If you're an Apple aficionado, you can practically live your entire life off gadgets and applications that begin with a lowercase "i."
To visualize the great tech war, I've created a couple of handy charts to illustrate the main sectors each big company is competing in. The X's represent places where each company has established itself. The /'s are places where they've made smaller presences, or have noteworthy projects in the pipeline that haven't necessarily materialized.
What's fascinating about the map is the sheer depth and breadth of experimentation. It's populated by misfires, such as Apple's social music tool Ping, and interesting efforts that may or may not pay off, like Google+. Google Product Search isn't a surefire cash cow, but by moving into shipping it's doing its best to make Amazon uncomfortable. Then there's Facebook's new phone project with HTC, the delightfully code-named "Buffy." Does the world really need a smartphone entirely dedicated to social networking? It's not clear. But Facebook doesn't want to risk becoming a bit-player in a web world dominated by phones and tablets.
There are also some aspects that might seem surprising. Industry watchers have been writing Microsoft off for years. And it certainly lags in smartphones and tablets. But thanks to XBox, as Wired's Tim Carmody pointed out yesterday, it's the only big tech company that's secured a foothold in television, bringing in social, streaming movies and shows, and, of course, its wildly popular games like Halo. As a result, it's competitive in the entertainment space.
No company has bingo. Even with a full column of X's, there's no guarantee another company won't create another sector to dominate. But here's the bottom line: While there's already a lot of overlap between these companies, we should expect to see even more. There are still plenty of half-slashes and blank spaces on that board.
*Manjoo writes off Microsoft, arguing the company lost its position as a consumer web innovator. I'm a little uncomfortable counting out a $200 billion company with oodles of cash at its disposal.