Media giants dictate the technical future

This is the first part in a series on the future of the tech industry.

War: What is it good for?

For one thing, it’s useful for diversifying a corporation’s portfolio to better position itself against its competitor’s multi-billion dollar entrance into similar fields.

America’s technology giants have been dueling for years in a broad array of industries, which include the search engine market, computer sales, social networking websites and music players.

The competition between these companies is coming to a head. Developments in the near future could determine which of these bigwigs is best suited to dominate an increasingly tech-savvy society.

Expansion

Now more than ever, companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple and even Facebook are squaring off in areas where they have minimal or no previous experience. What’s more, these companies don’t just expand into fields that guarantee a certain amount of success — they challenge titans of business, taking massive risks by targeting popular mainstays.

Take a look at the facts: Google is starting its own broadband Internet service, Microsoft released a Windows smart phone, Apple televisions are being shipped all around the world and Facebook is planning to add an e-mail address to its growing list of features.

Gene Laczniak, a professor of marketing, said communications technology has reached a critical point in its development for the companies involved.

“Many experts agree that a single unifying device will soon allow consumers to do most of what they want: surf the Web, communicate electronically, socially network, watch media and work on the cloud,” Laczniak said in an e-mail. “All these firms are vying to be the central hub for the go-to device.”

Trends

Barrett McCormick, a professor and political science department chair, said the burgeoning tech field is following the pattern of other mega-industry start-ups highlighted by author Tim Wu’s book, “The Master Switch.”

First, like the Internet in the 1990s, there is a competitive and decentralized “wild west” period, usually the golden age for the industry in terms of creativity and inventions. Next, consolidations and mergers lead to a few dominant figures. The consolidation foreshadows a monopoly, and innovation becomes more or less stagnant.

In today’s environment, progress has been anything but stagnant. Google, Microsoft, and, of course, Apple are challenging BlackBerry in the high-end cell phone industry. Facebook’s success in social media has been a meteoric rise from dorm room operation to billion dollar corporation that is taking valuable advertising dollars away from Google.

Apple has made dozens of ultra-popular devices that many people can’t imagine living without, and you can still find Microsoft’s imprint in most computers across the country.

If it involves the Internet, chances are one of these corporations is involved. But for at least one of these companies, this dominant position was the result of some good fortune.

McCormick said Microsoft left the door open for Google to become what it is today because of the choices it made years ago.

“For an important period in the 1990s, Microsoft did not understand how important the Internet would become, and thus left the field open for Google to develop its search engine,” McCormick said. “Google’s subsequent success in developing Internet-oriented or ‘cloud-based’ software services puts Microsoft’s core business, software, at risk of losing relevance.”

Legal

It’s not only engineers sitting in front of a computer screen who are fighting these tech battles. Lawyers armed with briefs and affidavits have also entered the arena.

Media reports indicated Google’s rivals are lobbying the federal government to bring an antitrust case against the search engine giant for putting its own products at the top of users’ search results.

Michael Waxman, a professor of law, said antitrust cases aren’t very common because the public prefers the open market to solve business problems. Google’s adversaries would still prefer to have the U.S. Department of Justice sue Google rather than their own lawyers, Waxman said.

“It’s always better for the government to bring an antitrust case rather than your company because lawyers cost a lot of money,” he said.

Look for part two of the Tech Wars series in next Thursday’s edition of the Tribune.