Facebook, Google, Apple. Finding the line

Facebook is there to connect you with your friends, old and new. Its purpose is to allow you to share moments of your life, and enjoy moments in other people’s lives, generally to bring people closer together.

Meanwhile, Google is trying to make your online experience more simple and rich, providing applications such as email, maps, calendars, documents to make things easier; the likes of YouTube and Picasa to make things richer; and a kick-ass search engine to allow you to find exactly what you’re looking for.

And Apple is intent on providing a beautiful and simplistic experience when connecting with technology, both in the devices themselves and the interfaces that they support.

That’s the gloss. Here’s the cynic’s view.

Facebook is intent on ensuring that when people connect with other people or organisations online, they do it in the confines of Facebook. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Google is intent on ensuring that when people want to do anything online, they do it through Google. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Apple is intent on ensuring that when people want to enjoy media online, they do it through Apple. And in so doing, they will take a large cut of the profits involved.

There is a fine line between being perceived to do stuff that your users will love and being perceived to do stuff that will abuse the trust of those users. Ask Microsoft. And maybe treading that line most carefully will decide who wins the battle of the user technologists.

The war continues between the major players in the personal IT services market. To most of Joe Public, they will mostly see the veneer. They’ll see the shiny iPad, the beautiful way in which Google Maps helps them get to grandma’s house, the way in which they can now connect so easily with people who might otherwise be strangers. But behind the gloss, evil is going on.

In the 1990s, Microsoft became huge. And along the way it became hated. It tried to use its position in certain markets to push into others, often forcibly. Internet Explorer being packaged with Windows was one such foray. Maybe this hatred goes with the territory of being big.

Now we have, among others, Facebook, Google and Apple.

Each of them wants to own certain aspects of our online experience. Apple is doing so through hardware: the iPad and the iPhone. Facebook is doing so through software: its website. And Google is doing both: its swathe of applications now being complemented by hardware in the form of the Google Samsung Nexus, although this latter facet is being done through partnerships rather than directly.

But these companies, particularly Google and Facebook, are no longer inspired by making their offering lovely for the customer. (I genuinely believe they once were.) The companies have shareholders and these shareholders demand inordinate returns on their investments. And to do this, each company must milk its offering for all it’s worth.

In doing so, they will be perceived as being evil. They will open up your data to advertisers and use every opportunity to increase the value associated with your using their offering.

Arguably, the current king of the three is less into this business. Apple is about building beautiful hardware and operating systems. It’s less about building apps that can maximise the value of your interactions while using them. My betting is that with time they will move more and more towards this area over the coming years.

To use a mathematical analogy, there is, I expect, a maximum that the companies need to find. If they don’t push enough to maximise the value of our interactions with their services, then they will lose out to those players that do. And likewise, if they go too far in using that data, customers will become tired and go elsewhere. Finding that maximum will be the big challenge.

It’s going to be an interesting race to watch.

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