The Secret Alliance Between the Top Four Tech Companies

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Aug. 5 2013 12:05 PM

Behind Frenemy Lines

We think of the top four tech companies as mortal foes, but they need one another in order to thrive.

The grand narrative of the tech industry is that Google and Apple—and Amazon and Facebook—are all at one another’s throats.
From left, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Eric Schmidt, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Apple's Tim Cook

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reuters.

This is part of a special series about great rivalries: between tech titans, sports franchises, and even dinosaur hunters. Read about the series here.

Last week my colleague Matt Yglesias and I took turns playing out a fantastical 10-part shooting war between Apple and Google. We had fun doing it, and, at least in the early rounds, we stuck to halfway realistic scenarios for hostilities between the two tech giants: Apple removes Google as the default search engine in its mobile devices; Google removes any mention of Apple from its search results, etc. The later rounds got pretty silly—Apple’s forces attack Google’s data centers, Google plants a virus in Apple’s manufacturing plants—but, hey, it’s summer.

And, really, the whole idea of any kind of war between Apple and Google is pretty silly. That’s because, even if they’d never admit it, both firms are smart enough to know they need each other. Apple would be a much less successful company, and its products would be much less useful, if Google wasn’t around. And Google would hardly be the giant it is if not for Apple.

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The grand narrative of the tech industry is that Google and Apple—and Amazon and Facebook—are all at one another’s throats. In the spring of 2011, Google chairman Eric Schmidt described them as the leading “gang of four” in the tech industry. A few months later, I wrote a cover story for Fast Company declaring these firms the most important in the world today—and, I added, they’re “on the verge of war.” This was a rhetorical flourish to describe their increasingly competitive interests. In the past, these companies maintained largely separate businesses. Apple sold hardware. Google did search. Facebook was a social network. And Amazon was an online store. But now they’re all vying to become not just the most successful firms in tech but the most consequential companies in any industry, anywhere. (I’m writing a book on these firms’ battle for dominance.)

But I think we often pay outsized attention to the rivalry, and we don’t look enough at the friendly (albeit sometimes grudging) cooperation between these companies. The release of any single iOS or Android device is boring, but put it in a larger context of a war between Apple and Google and you’ve got a juicy story. Can Facebook build a Web advertising network that rivals Google’s? Can Google create a viable alternative to Amazon Prime? Will Apple’s online service ever rival Google’s? To journalists, these questions are irresistible. You readers also love rivalries; every time I praise a Google product, pan an Apple product, or vice versa, I hear from throngs of people who wonder why I’m in the tank for one or the other.

No one should be in the tank for any one of these firms, because each would be diminished without the others. We’re better off with all of them. To see why, let’s go through the four one by one.

Apple makes most of its profits from sales of the iPhone and the iPad. Now, imagine these devices without Google. First, your maps would suck. The iPhone wouldn’t have even had a maps app at first. Steve Jobs reportedly thought of the feature at the last minute, and the company had to hastily cut a deal with Google to get maps on the phone. What would the iPhone have been without a Google Maps app? Not totally useless, but surely slightly less than the magical mobile computer it was.

Also, the iPhone wouldn’t have had Google search, Gmail, or YouTube. Apple either would have had to rely on subpar providers like Yahoo for these services or make them itself. As we saw later, when Apple did replace Google’s maps with its own, Apple is much better at outsourcing to Google than copying it.

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