This is a two-part series explaining the “Big Tech” debate in detail. With the recent congressional hearing, we’ve taken a look at Apple and Amazon in Part 1.
The new synonym of social — Facebook
Facebook has been at the center of all discussions about online privacy and security. The social networking company has grown exponentially in the last decade, and it almost seems like nothing can stop it.
Starting as a simple social networking alternative to the likes of Friendster and MySpace, Facebook has improved radically as a product as well as a company. It proved that a free-to-use social network is possible with ads and went onto grow an empire out of it. While competition soon fizzled out, Facebook constantly innovated. Remember the time everyone was hooked to Farmville?
When the original product, Facebook, started reaching a saturation level, and younger users were looking for something new, it acquired Instagram. The fledgling app became a huge success, thanks to Facebook’s already available user base. Within a decade, Facebook acquired multiple strategic investments like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus.
For a brief moment, Snapchat was considered to be a danger to Instagram. And, Facebook had no qualms in blatantly copying its features. Today, Stories are an integral part of the Instagram experience. Thanks to its investment in augmented reality as well as virtual reality, the filter library on Instagram is filled to the brim with creative options.
Even though Facebook had an in-built instant messaging service called Messenger, Facebook acquired WhatsApp. The acquisition gave it an unimaginable reach in developing markets. Today, the company has billions of active users across the globe.
But, did you notice one trend? Facebook pretty much controls all of social networking online. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp in one basket dominate the industry. Facebook has almost 2.5 billion active users.
A company mired with reckless management
Not only does its dominance stifle competition, but it also makes it responsible for a lot of user data. And, we all know Facebook’s reputation with privacy is quite muddy. It was revealed that data of more than 50 million users was used by foreign powers to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential election. Cambridge Analytica closely analyzed the preferences and opinions of these users and targeted them with political ads in a bid to change the voter’s decision and sway them towards a particular candidate.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed this psychological tactic was also used during Brexit. Political parties from around the world were clients, leveraging this as service. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has attended a congressional hearing in the past, and the internet is filled with memes about it. But, the primary concern continues to exist — is user data safe?
This question gets tougher to answer when we consider the scale at which the company operates. From the Upper Eastside to a warzone, Facebook has users everywhere. The company has always maintained that it follows industry-leading security standards, and users, as well as authorities, can trust it. However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has introduced the common to the dangers of cyber warfare.
If ad targeting wasn’t enough, the story doesn’t end for Facebook. Experts widely criticize the platform for its lack of moderation and flow of misinformation. While rivals like Twitter have taken a wiser approach amid the looming presidential elections, Facebook chooses to stay away from intensive reduction.
Not just Facebook, even WhatsApp has long been in news for its misuse. The free flow of messages has led to mob justice instances that were actually instigated by misinformation. The app has introduced a wide range of measures to fight this, but it has brought negligible change on-ground.
Coming back to the “Big Tech” debate, should a company with a consistent history of shortcoming, be responsible for sensitive user data? We’ve already seen how data can be weaponized. What’s even more intriguing is, Facebook is technically an advertising company.
It quite literally acts as a middle-man between a vast pool of users and advertisers. While there’s nothing illegal about the business model, the company does need a wake-up call immediately and has to get its act together.
Google, the gateway to the internet
Google.com is often called the homepage of the internet. The search engine is everyone’s go-to website for two decades now. Anything you need is just a second away. The site lets you find something as general as a company’s website to an in-depth analysis from a white-paper PDF hosted on a university’s website.
Starting as a search engine, Google quickly expanded to new projects like Gmail, Maps, and YouTube. Its suite of applications is practically infinite and covers pretty much everything we need in the digital age. Google has more than 85 percent of the search engine market, and the nearest competitor is Microsoft’s Bing.
With the onset of the smartphone age, it acquired Android and changed history forever. Thanks to close partnerships with companies like HTC, Android got a much-needed boost to take on Apple’s iOS. Today, it also controls more than 85 percent of the market. Except for Apple, practically all other phone makers rely on it.
Over the years, Google has diversified massively. With a recent restructuring, Google has a parent called Alphabet. The parent company has interests in many more ventures like research and development-oriented X, self-driving car maker Waymo, DeepMind, and many more. It has a market cap of more than US$ 1 trillion.
Google rules the software world with its apps, operating systems, and enterprise packages. The most important point is, all of these services are free-to-use on a personal level. You have access to free email, maps, videos, music, and even news. It sells some add-ons like Drive storage or YouTube Premium, but these subscriptions aren’t its primary source of income.
Google, ruler of the free internet
Just like Facebook, Google also relies on advertising. In fact, Google is the world’s largest advertising company. It not only lets you deliver ads on its own products but also acts as a marketplace for advertisers and publishers. It single-handedly has a 37 percent share in America’s advertising industry (including offline). AdSense is widely used by other websites to monetize digital traffic.
Just like Apple, the problem with Google is its massive size and reach. It practically dominates multiple verticals like search engines, browsers, operating systems, and video streaming. Even a mammoth-like Microsoft has failed to challenge it with Bing. Regulators have fined the company multiple times for using its dominance to push its own products.
A majority of phones that ship with Android come bundled with Google apps. Without Google Play Services, one can’t leverage the Play Store. Indirectly, making it mandatory to partner with Google. Android is an open-source system, but it’s clear Google is the party that benefits the most.
When we combine all of these services and its associated analytical tracking, we realize Google knows everything about us. Google’s algorithms are constantly monitoring our preferences to deliver us more and more relevant content. A young venture like Google Pay in India came to a leading position within a short time, despite competition from fin-tech stalwarts like Paytm, PhonePe, and more.
When we consider the speed at which Alphabet is expanding, it’s clear it wants to play a fundamental role in our life.
Internet — man’s new best friend
“Big Tech” has another thing in common. They all play a critical role in our lives today and want to be as closer to us as possible. Apple wants to be your trustworthy hardware partner, Amazon wants you to buy everything from them, Facebook wants your entire social life, and Google makes it all possible, silently in the background.
On a regular day, I end up using their product at least a hundred times. Actually, my phone’s digital well-being feature says I unlocked my Android phone at least 100 times today, got 150 WhatsApp notifications, opened Instagram more than 15 times, spent 25 minutes window shopping on Amazon, and heard 3 hours of music on Apple Music. And, typed all of this on a MacBook Air.
This is the crux of the story. Big tech is all about wanting to be your best friend. Don’t get me wrong, these companies are also responsible for rapid innovation and unprecedented progress in computer science. The internet started as a top-secret government project. But gained lightning speed only when it was made public, and companies realized its business potential.
If you’re looking for a right and a wrong here, you’ve come to the wrong place. Standard Oil was a conventional entity that dealt in physical products like oil.
Data is equivalent to oil only in terms of valuation. With a fast-paced innovation cycle, these companies are constantly evolving. We can’t just break them into pieces based on geographical location. This is the reason why the big tech debate is extremely interesting. It’s an unprecedented situation and it’s clear that the big four have joined hands to fight the oncoming antitrust regulatory hurdles. The fact that all four companies agreed to appear for the hearing is a symbol of unity. Their survival is at stake and there’s no textbook answer to follow.
This is Part 2 of the series. We’ve covered Apple and Amazon’s involvement in Part 1.
iPhone sales surge like never before despite raging pandemic
Apple’s daily revenue was $1 billion in Q2
Apple reported record revenues of US$ 89.6 billion for Q2 2021, an increase of 54 percent year over year. The company’s iPhone, iPad, and Mac lineups are producing strong growth.
The iPhone range, headlined by the iPhone 12 quartet, brought in US$ 48 billion in revenue alone between January and the end of March. iPhone revenue in the previous quarter was roughly US$ 29 billion, marking a rise of 66 percent. iPad sales came in at US$ 7.8 billion while Mac sales were US$ 9.1 billion.
Apple said it would increase its dividend by 7 percent to US$ 0.22 per share and authorized $90 billion in share buyback, which is significantly higher than last year’s US$ 50 billion.
The subscription services, which include the Apple One bundles, also hit an all-time high with US$ 16.9 billion in sales. These services include Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and more. Wearables like AirPods and the Apple Watch had a record-setting quarter, too, drawing in US$ 7.8bn.
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, said on a conference call with analysts that all five of the best-selling smartphones in the U.S. during the quarter were iPhones. Though, Apple did not disclose official guidance for what it presumes in the quarter ending in June.
Apple sales grew at least 35 percent in every region, and while the majority was still in the Americas, China played a pivotal role too. The company did say that future growth could be hampered due to the acute shortage of semiconductors. Its new M1 chipset is class-leading and designed on the latest ARM-based architecture. This adds a layer of complexity that could slow down shipments.
Apple said it didn’t know how long the chip shortage would keep supply from meeting demand, but it’s sure that the demand far outweighs the supply.
Jeff Bezos says Amazon should treat its workers in a better way
His final letter to shareholders before stepping down as CEO
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos used his final letter to Amazon shareholders to focus on employee well-being and its significant carbon footprint. The transition is closely watched by everyone as the legendary co-founder hands over the reigns to Andy Jassy.
The e-commerce giant has always been customer-centric, which was the prime reason it was able to garner trust and support. Now, Bezos thinks it time to put the company’s workforce on priority.
Jassy, the former head of Amazon Web Services, is taking over the top job so that Bezos can step back from day-to-day responsibilities. It’ll now be his responsibility to ensure Amazon continues its growth trajectory and sustains the pandemic-induced boom.
It’s currently hounded by regulators, labor unions, and activists around the world. There are multiple allegations — unfair treatment of warehouse workers, stifling competition, discouraging unionization, and shortchanged partners. It’s a long list, and the pressure keeps mounting as the company’s stock increases in value.
Bezos also talked about creating wealth for shareholders, the fact that climate change is real, the recent warehouse union vote in Bessemer, Alabama, US. Among his proposals are new staffing rotations to reduce physical stress at warehouses. He said that 40 percent of Amazon’s work-related injuries are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as strains and sprains from repetitive motions. These injuries tend to occur in the first six months of an employee’s tenure.
The founder also touted the company’s decision to increase Amazon’s minimum wage to US$ 15 per hour, a rate that labor groups have been advocating for the longest of time.
When it comes to workers who can’t consistently meet the company’s expectations, he says Amazon provides coaching to them, with 82 percent of it being “positive.” He also added that less than 2.6 percent of the staff was fired for not meeting the job expectations.
Amazon is also trying to cut down its carbon emissions and has pledged to have 100,000 electric delivery vans by 2030. Bezos has personally committed US$ 10 billion in grants for climate-oriented companies and organizations.
Why is Amazon starting a $250 million venture fund in India?
Aims to bring 1 million offline stores online by 2025
Amazon has announced a US$ 250 million venture fund called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund that’ll invest in small and medium-sized businesses. The goal is to boost India’s export by using technology and the marketplace’s reach.
Amazon Smbhav will be focusing on the digitization of small businesses, agri-tech innovations to raise farmer productivity, and health tech for quality universal healthcare. The fund was announced at Amazon India’s annual Smbhav Summit.
It intends to tap offline sellers and professionals via the fund and on onboarding a million shops by 2025. Another initiative is “Spotlight NorthEast,” which will bring 50,000 artisans, weavers, and small businesses online from India’s North-Eastern states. The region is known for its local produce like honey, tea, and spices.
The announcement came at a fireside chat at the summit between Andy Jassy, incoming CEO of Amazon and Amit Agarwal, Global Senior VP and Country Head, Amazon India. They also revealed the first bet Amazon was making through the new fund — invoice discounting platform M1xchange, in which it has led a $10 million investment.
Amazon said it created close to 300,000 jobs since January 2020 and one million in total. It also boasted of having almost 70,000 sellers, exporting Indian goods to other markets totaling US$ 3 billion in sales.
The timing of Amazon India’s announcement is key because the e-commerce companies have been barred from delivering in the state of Maharashtra amid a Coronavirus-led curfew. While the restrictions are regional, businesses are unable to get necessary and basic supplies. In a work-from-home world, getting an emergency mice/keyboard or mattress should be easy via digitization, but there are antitrust concerns.
Due to a lockdown, offline sellers cannot operate and thus, don’t want online businesses to eat their share. The Narendra Modi-led government has historically sided with the offline traders since they constitute a majority of India’s market. The offline market is still the king, and the gap between the two is very substantial.
If online players operate exclusively for too long, they’ll start gobbling up market share gradually, killing the smaller businesses. While the aim is to maintain a level-playing field, the current rules aren’t helping anybody at the end of the day. The region also fails to collect indirect taxes over the possible transactions, leading to a cash crunch while the pandemic rages.
The FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) rules for the retail market were changed in 2019, meaning Amazon India could no longer directly sell its products. It had to act like a marketplace to maintain healthy competition since 100 percent FDI is allowed in e-commerce as a tech platform, but not as a retailer.
Thanks to the fund, Amazon can show its commitment to India and its initiatives to encourage online trade. India’s new farm laws also make it easier for private companies to invest in agriculture or partner with farmers for contracts.
Amazon had announced an investment of US$1 billion in January 2020 and its purpose was also the same — digitizing India’s small and medium businesses. Founder Jeff Bezos had said back then, “We are doing this now because it is working. And when something works you should double down on it.”
For now, the concerns of a monopoly are diminished because Amazon is going up against India’s homegrown Flipkart, which Walmart now backs. Reliance is also eyeing this segment and has already kicked off a hyperlocal service called JioMart. Lastly, many other retailers like Dmart, Tata CliQ + Bigbasket, and Grofers are available.
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