As I Was Saying

Gang Way: 4 for the Apocalypse

10/03/2011 5:07 PM

Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, the Gang of Four is riding hard.

Within less than a fortnight, Apple introduced iPhone 5; Amazon shook up the portable screen world with its four new Kindles, notably the near-tablet-featured “Fire”; Facebook unleashed a slew of overhauls; and Google’s Zeitgeist conference included introspection about the impact of Google’s Motorola acquisition.

Ever since Google chairman Eric Schmidt defined this new-tech “Gang of Four” at the All Things Digital conference in May, I’ve been pondering the role of these new “titans of tech,” as The Washington Post characterized the fabulous four. The Post’s “collision grid” illustrated how the multi-billion-dollar behemoths are clashing against each other, adding to the business drama now playing out with countless implications on cable and other industries.

In his May remarks, Schmidt dumped the “old tech” gang of four - IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle - into an historic murk.

That prompts even deeper thoughts into what distinguishes the new titans from the old. For one thing, the new four are primarily consumer-facing companies, brand names that customer bring into their homes. (Oh yes, there’s Intel “Inside” many products, but the only way to get it home is buy buying those devices.)

Among the previous gang, only IBM and Microsoft have products directly used by consumers. Oracle and Microsoft, along with many SiliVally old guard firms such as Sun and Silicon Graphics, tried to buy their way into the home via deals with cable TV operators for set-top box technology. We all know where those projects wound up. (Hint, for those who came in late: nowhere.)

The other major commonality amongst the new Gang of Four is their focus on wireless services and devices. All of their major products and projects creeping into the marketplace involve mobile and wireless capabilities. At the very least (and it’s a BIG “least”), this points customers toward the untethered world - as if most users need a push in that direction. The repeated reminders that wireless is dominant are a challenge to broadband operators still hooked on wired connections.

Even MSOs that are forging wireless connectivity relationships should realize they’ll be butting heads against convergence visions that the Gang of Four intends to control.

One more thing: although geographic location means little in today’s border-free ecosystem, all four gang members are based on the west coast: three in Silicon Valley plus Amazon in Seattle. In the former Gang, two were headquartered in SiliValley (Intel and Oracle), one near Seattle (Microsoft) and the other outside of New York (IBM). Most significantly in this tech-centric assault, all of the leaders operate far distant, intellectually as well as physically, from media headquarters in New York and, now, Philadelphia.

The new Gang of Four, “outlined against that blue-gray October sky,” may not be as terrifying as the 1924 Notre Dame “four horsemen, immortalized by Grantland Rice in his description of their gridiron victory against Army on October 18, 1924.

They may not be as horrific as the apocalyptic four horsemen of Revelations to whom Rice alluded in his famous report. Today’s tech Gang of Four may be as revolutionary as the Chinese radicals of the late 1960s who opposed Mao Zedong’s policies, thus inspiring the name for the British post-punk music group.

But today’s Gang of Four has the ability to affect the communications and information businesses in countless ways: setting agendas, establishing consumer relationships, directing policy debates, forging alliances. That can be as bone-crushing as that 1924 afternoon at the Polo Grounds. Cable operators and programmers, along with music, publishing and production companies, better suit up for a hellish battle.

As Rice observed about the Four, “in dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine.” We can now begin forming our opinions about which of those classic riders match the roles of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com  

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