This Too Shall Pass: Unassailable Monopolies That Were, in Hindsight, Eminently Assailable
[N]ew combinations are, as a rule, embodied, as it were, in new firms which generally do not arise out of the old ones but start producing beside them; … in general it is not the owner of stagecoaches who builds railways. – Joseph Schumpeter, January 1934
Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the tech giants — Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple — claiming they have too much power and represent a danger to our democracy. As part of our response to her proposal, we shared a couple of headlines from 2007 claiming that MySpace had an unassailable monopoly in the social media market.
Tommaso Valletti, the chief economist of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) of the European Commission, said, in what we assume was a reference to our posts, “they go on and on with that single example to claim that [Facebook] and [Google] are not a problem 15 years later … That’s not what I would call an empirical regularity.”
We appreciate the invitation to show that prematurely dubbing companies “unassailable monopolies” is indeed an empirical regularity.
It’s Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future of Competition in Tech
No one is immune to this phenomenon. Antitrust regulators often take a static view of competition, failing to anticipate dynamic technological forces that will upend market structure and competition.
Scientists and academics make a different kind of error. They are driven by the need to satisfy their curiosity rather than shareholders. Upon inventing a new technology or discovering a new scientific truth, academics often fail to see the commercial implications of their findings.
Maybe the titans of industry don’t make these kinds of mistakes because they have skin in the game? The profit and loss statement is certainly a merciless master. But it does not give CEOs the power of premonition. Corporate executives hailed as visionaries in one era often become blinded by their success, failing to see impending threats to their company’s core value propositions.
Furthermore, it’s often hard as outside observers to tell after the fact whether business leaders just didn’t see a tidal wave of disruption coming or, worse, they did see it coming and were unable to steer their bureaucratic, slow-moving ships to safety. Either way, the outcome is the same.
Here’s the pattern we observe over and over: extreme success in one context makes it difficult to predict how and when the next paradigm shift will occur in the market. Incumbents become less innovative as they get lulled into stagnation by high profit margins in established lines of business. (This is essentially the thesis of Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma).
Even if the anti-tech populists are powerless to make predictions, history does offer us some guidance about the future. We have seen time and again that apparently unassailable monopolists are quite effectively assailed by technological forces beyond their control.
Jan 1977: Commodore PET released
Jun 1977: Apple II released
Aug 1977: TRS-80 released
Feb 1978: “I.B.M. Says F.T.C. Has Ended Its Typewriter Monopoly Study” (NYT)
Mar 2000: Palm Pilot IPO’s at $53 billion
Sep 2006: “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’” – David Pogue (NYT)
Apr 2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Ballmer (USA TODAY)
Jun 2007: iPhone released
Nov 2007: “Nokia: One Billion Customers—Can Anyone Catch the Cell Phone King?” (Forbes)
Sep 2013: “Microsoft CEO Ballmer Bids Emotional Farewell to Wall Street” (Reuters)
If there’s one thing I regret, there was a period in the early 2000s when we were so focused on what we had to do around Windows that we weren’t able to redeploy talent to the new device form factor called the phone.
Mar 1998: “How Yahoo! Won the Search Wars” (Fortune)
Once upon a time, Yahoo! was an Internet search site with mediocre technology. Now it has a market cap of $2.8 billion. Some people say it’s the next America Online.
Sep 1998: Google founded
Sep 2000: “AOL Quietly Linking AIM, ICQ” (ZDNet)
AOL’s dominance of instant messaging technology, the kind of real-time e-mail that also lets users know when others are online, has emerged as a major concern of regulators scrutinizing the company’s planned merger with Time Warner Inc. (twx). Competitors to Instant Messenger, such as Microsoft Corp. (msft) and Yahoo! Inc. (yhoo), have been pressing the Federal Communications Commission to force AOL to make its services compatible with competitors’.
Dec 2000: “AOL’s Instant Messaging Monopoly?” (Wired)
Dec 2015: Report for the European Parliament
There have been isolated examples, as in the case of obligations of the merged AOL / Time Warner to make AOL Instant Messenger interoperable with competing messaging services. These obligations on AOL are widely viewed as having been a dismal failure.
Oct 2017: AOL shuts down AIM
Jan 2019: “Zuckerberg Plans to Integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger” (NYT)
May 1997: Amazon IPO
Mar 1998: American Booksellers Association files antitrust suit against Borders, B&N
Feb 2005: Amazon Prime launches
Jul 2006: “Breaking the Chain: The Antitrust Case Against Wal-Mart” (Harper’s)
Feb 2011: “Borders Files for Bankruptcy” (NYT)
Feb 2004: Facebook founded
Jan 2007: “MySpace Is a Natural Monopoly” (TechNewsWorld)
Seventy percent of Yahoo 360 users, for example, also use other social networking sites — MySpace in particular. Ditto for Facebook, Windows Live Spaces and Friendster … This presents an obvious, long-term business challenge to the competitors. If they cannot build up a large base of unique users, they will always be on MySpace’s periphery.
Feb 2007: “Will Myspace Ever Lose Its Monopoly?” (Guardian)
Jun 2011: “Myspace Sold for $35m in Spectacular Fall from $12bn Heyday” (Guardian)
Dec 2003: “The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” – Steve Jobs (Rolling Stone)
Apr 2006: Spotify founded
Jul 2009: “Apple’s iPhone and iPod Monopolies Must Go” (PC World)
Jun 2015: Apple Music announced
Apr 2003: Netflix reaches one million subscribers for its DVD-by-mail service
Mar 2005: FTC blocks Blockbuster/Hollywood Video merger
Sep 2006: Amazon launches Prime Video
Jan 2007: Netflix streaming launches
Oct 2007: Hulu launches
May 2010: Hollywood Video’s parent company files for bankruptcy
Sep 2010: Blockbuster files for bankruptcy
The Only Winning Move Is Not to Play
Predicting the future of competition in the tech industry is such a fraught endeavor that even articles about how hard it is to make predictions include incorrect predictions. The authors just cannot help themselves. A March 2012 BBC article “The Future of Technology… Who Knows?” derided the naysayers who predicted doom for Apple’s retail store strategy. Its kicker?
And that is why when you read that the Blackberry is doomed, or that Microsoft will never make an impression on mobile phones, or that Apple will soon dominate the connected TV market, you need to take it all with a pinch of salt.
But Blackberry was doomed and Microsoft never made an impression on mobile phones. (Half credit for Apple TV, which currently has a 15% market share).
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece for Red Herring magazine (seriously) in June 1998 with the title “Why most economists’ predictions are wrong.” Headline-be-damned, near the end of the article he made the following prediction:
The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.
Robert Metcalfe himself predicted in a 1995 column that the Internet would “go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” After pledging to “eat his words” if the prediction did not come true, “in front of an audience, he put that particular column into a blender, poured in some water, and proceeded to eat the resulting frappe with a spoon.”
A Change Is Gonna Come
Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, has the best summary of why competition in tech is especially difficult to predict:
IBM, Microsoft and Nokia were not beaten by companies doing what they did, but better. They were beaten by companies that moved the playing field and made their core competitive assets irrelevant. The same will apply to Facebook (and Google, Amazon and Apple).
Elsewhere, Evans tried to reassure his audience that we will not be stuck with the current crop of tech giants forever:
With each cycle in tech, companies find ways to build a moat and make a monopoly. Then people look at the moat and think it’s invulnerable. They’re generally right. IBM still dominates mainframes and Microsoft still dominates PC operating systems and productivity software. But… It’s not that someone works out how to cross the moat. It’s that the castle becomes irrelevant. IBM didn’t lose mainframes and Microsoft didn’t lose PC operating systems. Instead, those stopped being ways to dominate tech. PCs made IBM just another big tech company. Mobile and the web made Microsoft just another big tech company. This will happen to Google or Amazon as well. Unless you think tech progress is over and there’ll be no more cycles … It is deeply counter-intuitive to say ‘something we cannot predict is certain to happen’. But this is nonetheless what’s happened to overturn pretty much every tech monopoly so far.
If this time is different — or if there are more false negatives than false positives in the monopoly prediction game — then the advocates for breaking up Big Tech should try to make that argument instead of falling back on “big is bad” rhetoric. As for us, we’ll bet that we have not yet reached the end of history — tech progress is far from over.