Big Tech’s Flagships Are Leaking

In short, the customer experience on Amazon isn’t what it used to be. But I don’t want to single out the ecommerce giant for this regression of its core product. The phenomenon is now endemic among the giants of Big Tech. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft rose to prominence with fantastic products that were laser-focused on delivering something unique and magical to users. But as the companies got bigger and more powerful, they began to point their lasers somewhere else, while shining a dimmer light on the products they are known for. On the one hand, you can’t blame them—it’s hard for trillion-dollar companies to maintain growth that drives their stock price without creating new businesses. But antitrust crusaders say that these firms are compromising their flagship models, because they can get away with it. Their users aren’t going anywhere; the competition has been vanquished.

Case in point is the company that recently changed its name to Meta. I wonder how that sits with the people who work on the product still called Facebook—the one that brings in the bulk of the company’s profits. It’s not like the News Feed is a finished product: After 15 years, it’s still a black box that keeps delivering unwelcome stuff while failing to surface all we want to see from our actual friends. At one time, Zuckerberg actively engaged with that challenge. In 2013, for instance, he launched an innovative effort to build a social search feature to make the Feed more vital. But after a tepid response, Zuckerberg seemed to give up on it and turned his attention to buying other companies. Now, social media is no longer his main focus, and he’s hiring 10,000 people to build the metaverse.

Steve Jobs once understood that the path to greatness is a willingness to totally reinvent—to cannibalize, as he called it—one’s flagship creations. But Apple hasn’t been Sweeney Todd-ing many of its products of late. Instead, it’s built a huge services business. Not to mention … ads! It sells billions of dollars worth of advertising to developers who want better display in the app store. On top of all this, Apple’s white whale these days seems to be developing a car. At least iPhones haven’t gone backwards—but, really, how different is iPhone 13 from iPhone 10?

And have you tried Google Search recently? Those beloved 10 blue links have morphed into a Ginza-like display of ads, news stories, and a row of promoted items for sale. Good for the user? Not according to reviewers or regulators.

What’s the remedy for all of this? Antitrust action is a long process that may or may not garner results. But I do think it’s possible that sooner or later, customers might get sufficiently fed up and try products that dare to offer alternatives. Remember, at one time, it looked like the dominant companies on the internet would be AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace. Friends, they ruled! But they got greedy. AOL saw itself as less of a service based on person-to-person interaction than a marketing vehicle that packaged a giant audience. Yahoo didn’t want to be bothered with algorithmic search, and actually turned down the chance to buy Google. And when Facebook was on a meteoric rise, MySpace was excited about starting a record label.