Our online experiences are being shaped and governed by a quartet of internet giants, all with hardly anyone noticing. But which brands are set to dominate everything from cloud computing to corporate communications, and how will their growing influence over our lives affect us?
Google’s adoption as a verb underlines its incredible success at serving up curated search results. Having crushed rivals like AltaVista, Google is attempting to cement consumer loyalty with everything from office software to email services. And though its new enterprises often fail (such as Glass and Google+), acquiring YouTube ensured the world’s two biggest search engines are at Google’s disposal. Despite unquestionably making our lives easier, there are widely-held concerns that Google’s vast data repositories could make it too powerful in future years as a reseller of personal data and browsing habits.
If you still think of Amazon as an online shopping portal, you’re missing the bigger picture. This wildly successful ecommerce platform made a loss for its first nine years, quietly reinvesting profits to build a peerless hardware infrastructure. Its Amazon Web Services subdivision now underpins many of the world’s biggest businesses, through cloud computing and web hosting services. Speaking of which, Amazon Prime TV is one of the few on-demand content services capable of challenging Netflix, while its ever-improving Alexa chatbot offers competition for Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.
In tandem with its Messenger app and photography site Instagram, Facebook holds the top three positions in social media usage charts. The vast quantities of personal information its two billion active monthly users upload are resold to advertisers, on a scale few people can comprehend. Yet this cloud computing specialist wants more. Its controversial Internet.org programme was an attempt to control internet gateways and regulate available content, while Facebook is currently funding a scheme to provide free satellite internet coverage across deprived nations.
The cult-like status of Apple’s beautifully-designed products has given it a presence in most computing hardware sectors, from desktops and laptops to smartphones and media players. It even invented and dominated the tablet sector with the iPad. Apple’s iOS operating system challenges Windows and Linux/Android, while Siri and CarPlay reflect a determination to be our default internet gateway everywhere we go. Its plans to dominate the 2020s include ambitions to acquire a media company, develop a range of IoT-enabled domestic products and even manufacture its own vehicles.
Of course, these brands won’t have a monopoly on shaping tomorrow’s internet. The open-source Linux platform underpins the iconic Android smartphone system, while Linux’s arch-rival Microsoft continues to manufacture world-leading desktop OS and office software packages. The Apache Software Foundation is blazing a trail for big data processing and cloud computing, and gaming giants like Steam will continue to entertain us. Yet by 2020, few people (or businesses) will be able to function online without relying to some degree on Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. It remains to be seen how these firms exploit their market-leading positions, and how this might impact on society in the next decade.