Amazon Echo's Market Share for Voice-Activated Home Speakers Bloomberg

Whoever Controls the Operating System Directs the Future

(Bloomberg Gadfly) --My thoughts tend to go to dark places these days. And so when I watched Google on Wednesday trot out one after another of its homegrown computing devices for every task and every nook of our homes, I went straight to dystopia: R.I.P. digital competition. 

Today most people experience computing through devices controlled by a handful of companies: principally Microsoft and Apple for traditional computers and Google and Apple (and increasingly Chinese companies with customized versions of Google's Android) for smartphones. Feel free to throw in Inc., too, for tablets and TV sets. 

The companies that have owned the software foundation of those devices benefited from the proliferation of PCs and smartphones and other internet-connected hardware, but so did many others. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, WeChat in China and many more were able to flourish even though other companies owned the gateways people use to arrive at those internet hangouts. The internet-connected world has been more or less open to business for everyone. 

I’m not sure that will continue to be true. Amazon, Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and others are trying to establish a future of computers everywhere, without screens and perhaps controlled primarily by voices. It's easy to imagine this mode of computing will deliver disproportionate power to the owners of the digital gateways. The companies that own the operating system will control the future.

Sure, you may be able to tell a Google Home internet-connected speaker or Apple's Siri voice assistant to "send Mom a message with Facebook Messenger” or “play Imagine Dragons on Spotify," but odds are many people will just use whatever Google or Apple Inc. options are the default. And yes, people can order an Uber ride with their Amazon home speakers, but they have to know to ask for Uber. How will a future Uber or Netflix get discovered in the first place if people get out of the habit of searching or going to a central app store to find new tasks? 

It's true that many of today's technology superpowers got that way because they controlled operating systems. Microsoft's ownership of the software brains for nearly all personal computers gave it a foothold to build one of the world's dominant companies. Apple's ability to re-imagine a pocket supercomputer tied to its operating system made it the most valuable corporation in the world. It's debatable how much Google has benefited directly from its control of Android, but at the very least Google's internet search dominance has been aided by Android's position as the foundation for more than 85 percent of the world's smartphones. 

But it was also true that the owners of the dominant operating systems didn't take all the spoils. Software programs made for Windows and then the web made personal computers useful. Later, apps made by companies other than Apple or Google made smartphones useful. An iPhone is not so handy without Google Maps, Snapchat, Pandora and a web browser open to the wide internet.

But a Google Home speaker or an army of Amazon-powered access points in the house can be self-contained worlds. It is getting harder to imagine this emerging model of computing will produce neutral platforms that offer all comers equal footing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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