Congressional hearings are uniquely American, and you’ve surely seen them in a movie or show. It’s often the crux, dramatizing a room filled with politicians, media, and the country. Everyone’s attention is glued to the protagonist, who sits in front of the committee and answers their hard-hitting questions. If you really want to see a classic, I’d recommend seeing The Aviator.
Coming back to the point, a similar hearing has grabbed the world’s attention. Often referred to as “big tech”, American internet giants Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are working hard to defend their enormous size, arguing that their dominating position in the market doesn’t stifle competition.
In simpler terms, “big tech” has a market capitalization of more than US$ 4.85 trillion. And, this gives them enough clout to discourage competition and continue their virtual monopoly. When companies become too big, the consequences can be radical since the government will find it harder to regulate them.
Data is the new oil
The American economy has witnessed similar situations before and there are precedents available to curtail a company’s influence. For instance, Standard Oil was among the world’s first and largest multinational companies. It started when oil was a fresh discovery and the world was slowly realizing the fuel’s potential. Officially started in 1870, it grew exponentially in the coming years by acquiring smaller companies, controlling market supply, and chasing maximum efficiency while ignoring antitrust regulations.
By 1890, Standard Oil controlled almost 90 percent of the refined oil business in the US. In the coming years, the company would restructure itself into a holding company that controls more than 40 smaller companies. While these smaller companies were separate entities, all profits went to one parent company. In turn, the parent ensured all the kids work in tandem to improve efficiency and control market dynamics.
Finally, in 1911, Standard Oil’s control came to an end after the US Justice Department prosecuted it via the Sherman Antitrust Act. Standard Oil was dismantled into smaller companies, again. But, they had an independent board of directors and each was left to fend for its own. It essentially meant that Standard Oil, as one entity, no longer existed and the market had dozens of autonomous companies. For consumers, this ensured healthy competition and innovation, while supply chains and associated trade partners were no longer dealing in a pseudo-mafia regime.
Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of New York are predecessors of ExxonMobil, Standard Oil of Kentucky became Chevron, and South Penn Oil is known as Shell today. A similar breakup was enforced on telecom giant Bell Systems in 1982 when the parent AT&T, was split into regional companies. One of these sping-offs was Bell Atlantic, today called Verizon.
Big tech and its influence
Data is equivalent to oil or gold. The three together are fundamental pillars of the twenty-first century. Just like Standard Oil started out at the cusp oil discovery, Amazon and Google can be called the early pioneers of the consumer internet.
Equipped with instant connectivity, Amazon created online shopping as we know it today. The internet becomes a stressful place without Google helping us discover basic information. Facebook is quite literally our personal life and everyone around you uses it.
Lastly, Apple is the only significant hardware maker here, but it has surprisingly more control over software thanks to its closed eco-system. These companies are very similar to Standard Oil and can pose a serious threat to encouraging competition. Free market principles also go out the window when someone has majority control.
Apple and its greed for more
The Cupertino-based giant revolutionized music playback thanks to the iPod and iTunes. When Apple sold you the iPod, it made a profit. But you need music to utilize your purchase. So, you buy a track from iTunes, that’s also controlled by Apple. Ultimately, you end up paying more and more to the same company. Thankfully, the system is partially restricted and you can sideload MP3 files, but it’s a cumbersome and discouraging process.
Coming to 2020, apps are everywhere. Apple’s App Store comes pre-installed on iOS devices shipped in the last decade. Apple takes a 30 percent cut on whatever you sell via the App Store. Whether it’s an app or an in-app purchase, Apple will get its share of the revenue. Apple says the store acts as a perfect marketplace for developers as well as users. But, how can a newly started developer or company afford to give away 30 percent of its revenue to Apple as a “service charge?”
Keep in mind, this “big tech” has more than US$ 190 billion in cash. Spotify has publicly called-out Apple for this practice numerous times because it sells monthly streaming plans on its app and can’t afford to part a huge chunk of the payment to Apple. Instead of using Apple’s payment system, it manages its own subscription to save “Apple tax”, an informal slang for Apple’s revenue cut. Even Netflix follows a similar approach. The point is, bigger companies are capable of bypassing Apple’s ecosystem lock, albeit with considerable expenses. Then how can new competition come up from scratch?
It’s practically a monopoly because the developer has two options — take it or leave it. Now, if you’re in the market to sell your app, all iOS devices are out of scope if you don’t adhere to Apple’s demands. And, if you skip the App Store, you’re missing out on all the potential revenue. If you agree with Apple, by an optimistic outlook, you’ll at least get 70 percent of something as revenue? This is the basic working of a monopoly.
The operating system market is a duopoly controlled by Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. While third-party app stores like Amazon App Store, AppGallery, and more exist, ask yourself when was the last time you downloaded something off them?
In Apple’s defense, the company feels it should be able to collect its 30 percent share because it created the current ecosystem. With the launch of the iPhone, the company created a virtual marketplace out of nothing. The company invested in building an ecosystem that has stood the test of time and brings both, the user as well as developer, on the same page.
The company announced earlier this year that it has paid US$ 155 billion to developers since 2008. That’s a lot of money. There’s no denying that Apple kickstarted the “app as a product” philosophy, creating a brand new arena in the digital age. But is it’s control justified after a decade?
Apple has always been conservative about its ecosystem, but it’s efforts to accomplish that are often far-fetched. Recently, the company barred Xbox Gamepass on iOS devices because it “it can’t review every game” that’s being offered by Microsoft. Going by this logic, Apple should also screen or review every show or album that debuts on OTT (over the top) players like Netflix, Prime Video, Spotify, and more.
It’s clear that Apple wants to defend its Apple Arcade subscription service and doesn’t want Microsoft to steal the show with Project xCloud. This means that Xbox Gamepass will be available on Android only. If Apple can strong-arm a giant like Microsoft, isn’t it very obvious that smaller players stand no chance against the brand?
Amazon and its influence on customers
Starting out with just books, today the site has millions of products listed, ranging from a unique screw to a full-fledged air conditioner. What started out as an online marketplace has grown into a tech giant that has dominance in cloud computing, voice assistants, and even video streaming.
Critics say Amazon has frequently used its funding to undercut the competition. It took some losses in the short-term by trying to retain users. Once the user was accustomed to Amazon, a process that lets them avoid visits to a store, the loss turned into profit. With a yearly Prime subscription, you’d get free delivery on the smallest of products. Eventually, the user has recovered its Prime subscription fee in terms of convenience and Amazon has processed more orders than ever.
This model ensured that Amazon has an edge over everyone else. The site closely monitors your movement on the site and can intelligently suggest new products to purchase. The more one buys, the more Amazon earns. And, so do the sellers. This seems like a fair game.
But then, sellers realized Amazon has started recognizing categories that can be directly dominated. The user data they collect shows them precisely how much demand a product has, the price vs sales comparisons, and more. It leveraged this rich and unique data to launch its own product brand called Amazon Basics. If you’d normally buy a USB-C wire for US$ 10, Amazon Basics provided that for a lesser price. And, the Amazon tag garnered trust, luring the buyer away from third-party sellers to Amazon’s in-house accounting.
Now, sellers realized that Amazon used its internal sales data to indirectly push out the competition. Amazon follows a similar strategy in other markets like India. Obviously, a seller can try to sell directly via their own platform using simpler tools like Shopify, but will that match the reachability of Amazon? Can any individual seller match Amazon’s marketing and brand recognition?
The company grew as an e-commerce website but is involved in much more than selling books today, the prime reason why it’s one of the “big tech.” The marketplace’s dominant position helped it start brand new investment streams like Kindle hardware, Alexa speakers, and AWS cloud computing. The e-commerce model had worked very well and investors were fine with the company diversifying, even if it meant losing some projects like the Fire Phone.
Today, the company is bigger than physical establishments like Walmart. It’s going up against eBay, Flipkart, Lazada, AliExpress, and Rakuten in the e-commerce space. AWS is challenging Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, as well as Alibaba Cloud. Alexa is fighting against Google Assitant, Siri, and Cortana. And lastly, Prime subscription is taking on Netflix and Spotify in one go.
In this article, the most frequently mentioned companies are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Facebook sits in an entirely different vertical, filled with its own unique challenges. However, if you’re trying to do something on the internet, you’ll end up using one of their technology or platform in some way or the other.
And that’s the whole point of the “Big Tech” debate. These companies have grown too much, too quickly. They dominate the publicly known internet and have barely left any space for newcomers. Even if someone dares to do the unthinkable, they’ll be either acquired or pushed into infinite losses.
This is Part 1 of the series. Read Facebook and Google’s involvement in Part 2.
Intel can legally supply Huawei with chips
Since last week, Huawei can no longer legally work with American companies or companies using American technologies. As such, the Chinese company is in total survival mode, stockpiling supplies to mitigate the losses. However, outside of their control, other companies are also working to restore balance to Huawei’s businesses. For one, Intel can legally supply Huawei with chips starting today.
Since the start of the Huawei debacle, barred companies can continue operations with Huawei through a government-sanctioned operating license. To get one, the companies must still apply for one. And the government hasn’t exactly rushed to approve applications.
Now, Intel’s application has officially passed approval from the government, according to a Reuters report. With the license, the chipmaking company can legally ship components for Huawei. The approval might help Huawei fill its stockpile for near-future smartphones or even find a permanent supplier for the long run.
Besides Intel, other component companies have also applied for similar licenses. Currently, China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation is pending approval to continue business with Huawei. According to another report, Qualcomm has also applied for such a license.
Without a doubt, component companies are also feeling the sting of Huawei’s ban. Though Intel received its approval, the successes of other companies are still shrouded in mystery. At this point, no one knows how the Huawei debacle will finally end.
Facebook took down pro-China, pro-Duterte accounts
Reportedly China-sponsored and inauthentic accounts
With the American presidential elections fast approaching, Facebook is taking an active approach against potential election interference. For one, the social media platform is moderating its content more stringently for misinformation. Now, erring accounts are on the chopping block. Today, Facebook took down pro-China, pro-Duterte accounts in the Philippines.
If you’re worried about a potential violation of the right to free speech, the platform claims that the ban affects “inauthentic Chinese accounts,” according to a new security report. In a list containing more than 200 accounts, most were potentially interfering in Asian and American politics. Facebook also included more than 40 pages, nine groups, and more than 20 Instagram accounts.
Most of the accounts were based in the Philippines, commenting (and supporting) China’s claims on the West Philippine Sea and President Rodrigo Duterte’s actions. They also criticized Rappler. Posts were in English, Filipino, and Chinese.
On the flip side, the smaller chunk of suspended accounts is in the United States, showing support for both Democrats and Republicans.
Whereas the American-based accounts have only around 3,000 followers, the Philippines-based accounts have amassed more than 376,000 followers at the time of suspension. Meanwhile, the implicated groups drew in more than 60,000 followers. The accounts spent US$ 60 on ad spending in Chinese yuan. They also spent a whopping US$ 1,100 in Philippine peso.
Undoubtedly, Facebook is taking a more active approach against political interference. It marks a renewed approach compared to its efforts in 2016. Back then, the platform received a lot of flak for affecting the elections in both the United States and in Southeast Asia.
PeopleCount by Bosch is made for social distancing
Another smart solution to the challenges of the pandemic
Tech has played a key role in the battle against the Coronavirus pandemic. While we wait with bated breath for a vaccine, tech companies have given us ways to detect the virus, properly contact trace, and limit its spread. Now, Bosch, in partnership with Globaltronics and Philips, launches PeopleCount for social distancing.
PeopleCount is a customizable security system. It lets facility managers track, control, and manage the number of people entering a particular area. This lets them operate efficiently while guiding people to follow and maintain social distancing measures.
What is it exactly?
It uses Bosch’s intelligent camera solution and Philips’ Android System on Chip (SoC) display that allows real-time monitoring and analysis of people flow with minimal human intervention.
The system can be used for single entrance or multiple entrances simultaneously and displays the data through a simple traffic light system. PeopleCount also keeps customers informed and engaged through both promotional and safety messaging displayed on its system.
Bosch and Philips believe this system can be an effective tool for enforcing social distancing protocols. They see it as a solution that requires minimum investment, is quick and easy to deploy, can be operated remotely, is customer-friendly, and has the ability to record data and statistics.
How does it work?
It functions with three main components: a standalone application as the main control, a camera to track and analyze movements, and a monitor that displays communication for customers.
Bosch’s intelligent camera counts the number of people entering and exiting the facility using its video analytics features. Meanwwhile, the Philips Android SoC display keeps the customers informed with visual alerts prior to entering a facility.
Users can install single or multiple cameras and monitors across different entries or individual stores. The cameras can process information and able to generate the status of occupancy real-time.
This, then will be displayed in any browser-enabled display such as tablet or an android TV. This gives users the advantage of controlling access to various points of a building.
When using multiple cameras, the system can also aggregate the counts from different cameras to monitor the occupancy of individual shops, floors, and even areas covered by multiple entries and exits.
Comes with an alert system
When the occupancy has reached its maximum number, the system can alert or trigger the facility’s building access control system to secure the entrance until the occupancy is reduced.
The system also delivers real time information to the display for customer queue communications, alerting visitors whether they must wait or if they can enter.
The screen display can be used in three formats:
- The entire screen can be used to signal individuals to wait or enter.
- It can also be divided 50/50, where one part is used for entry instructions and the other may include promotional or instructional videos and even special products on discount.
- The third option is the use of a traffic light display for entry management while having a large area of the monitor to display other content.
Bosch and Philips are actively marketing this to private companies. During the launch, they also said they have projects lined up with the Philippine government to rollout this tech.
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