A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 29, 2015

Solution or Delusion? How Tech Companies Are Attempting to Secure Their Futures

What do you do for an encore? That is the question facing all tech companies and especially Apple in light of its recent all time record earnings announcement. 

What the big tech companies are doing increasingly, as the following article explains, is looking for opportunities to extend the core franchise they have created: using information to inspire purchases exponentially across the economy.

Seen in that light - as tools for furthering access, ease of use and reach - acquisitions of small companies for large prices, investment in far-reaching and far-out concepts like space travel or virtual reality appear not so much as evidence of loss of focus driven by too much capital, but as understandable, even logical attempts to effect expansive strategies in risk-adjusted manner.

That said, the law of large numbers dictates that it becomes harder and harder to grow a business or its financial performance as its scale expands. Planet earth has only so much space and so many people, which is why space travel is not as bizarre an investment as it may seem. JL

 Quentin Hardy reports in the New York Times:

Once ever-increasing data is gathered and processed, it must be consumed. Three-dimensional objects are a great way to do it, which is why Microsoft jumped on a bandwagon that Google and Facebook already rode with their own investments in goggles.
In the last two weeks, investments from some of the biggest technology companies have raised an important question: Have they gone crazy?
The short answer is: Probably not. The reasons show just how big their ambitions have become.
First, Qualcomm, which makes semiconductors for smartphones, invested with Richard Branson’s Virgin Group on a constellation of satellites. Google went into orbit too, joining Fidelity on a $1 billion investment in SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private rocketry company. The Internet search company also seemed interested in reselling the wireless assets of established phone companies.
Microsoft on Wednesday showed off the latest version of its single most important asset, the Windows operating system, along with some gee-whiz holographic goggles, a device with virtually (pun intended) no market. On Thursday Amazon, an online retailer with a big cloud computing business, said it was buying an Israeli maker of advanced semiconductors for about $350 million.
All of this could be ascribed to the kind of behavior often seen in the late stages of a bubble, when some companies have more money than ideas, and it has become hard to tell what anything is worth.
“One theory is that Silicon Valley has lost its mind,” said Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a leading venture capital firm. In reality, he says, “They are building something, and large parts of the economy haven’t adapted to it yet.”
While Andreessen Horowitz receives a lot of attention for flashy investments like Facebook and Skype, Mr. Dixon says that 30 percent of his firm’s deals are in now-obscure businesses that will turn out to be important in the new industrial landscape.
History offers parallels for big companies making strange moves. When George Eastman was building Kodak, he included railheads to his industrial park, for cattle whose hooves were used for gelatin on consumer film stock. Eastman couldn’t find the quality he needed from conventional sources, which had never before had to supply a business like Kodak. In 1926 the Firestone tire company acquired one million acres of Liberia for rubber trees, because the company was worried that colonial powers would cut off its supply.
These may have been the acts of rapacious monopolists who wanted to control ever area of their domain, but that wasn’t entirely the motivation. Necessity was; they were building new businesses, and they needed unimpeded quality supplies.
Today’s new industry is computation everywhere, fed by mobile devices and sensors, managed in so-called clouds of a million computer servers or more, then returned to businesses and consumers in the form of social networks, music, data analysis, online software and a thousand other services.
Consumption is monitored and tweaked, in a seemingly endless and growing feedback loop. Software, which has automated things for over six decades, is finally automating itself as well. In the way that Eastman needed a purer gelatin, these companies need purer, faster ways to gain, move and use data.
The chip company that Amazon bought, Annapurna Labs, appears to be involved in some kind of advanced data networking, which could make Amazon’s cloud faster and more powerful. Amazon had already hired experts in building low-power computing cores. Put them together, and you are talking about faster data in, faster data out, at a lower cost in Amazon’s cloud.
Qualcomm has an interest in consumers using superfast phones from every point on the planet. So does Google, and Google also wants all the information it can get from floating over the planet with specially made sensors. (The company already makes its own semiconductors.)
Once that ever-increasing data load is gathered and processed, it must be consumed. Three-dimensional objects are a great way to do it, which is why Microsoft jumped on a bandwagon that Google and Facebook already rode with their own investments in goggles.
“There is absolutely no part of the process that is not touched” by taking computation to a global scale, said David Campbell, the chief technical officer of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise group. “We’re creating self-optimizing systems, and it will touch all industries.”
Which again raises the “rapacious monopolist” issue. How far will the big guys go when there is seemingly no part of the world they don’t want to touch?
Mr. Campbell says that an industrial power made of combining mobility, cloud and data analysis makes possible a winner-take-all situation for an Airbnb or an Uber, in a way a hotel or taxi company could never before have achieved.
Optimists note that the sheer amount of invention makes possible new businesses. Big data, for example, emerged from new methods created by Google and Yahoo 10 years ago. Now, digital homes, drones and virtual reality are plausible industries because of this new infrastructure. Google is already in the digital home business, buying both Nest, a maker of smart thermostats and smoke alarms, and Dropcam, which uses the cloud to store and manage home video monitoring.
“I’m not superconcerned about one company running seven or eight of these things — it’s just too much to manage,” said Joshua Reeves, a founder of ZenPayroll, a start-up in San Francisco that uses cloud and mobile technology to pay workers and help them manage money. “The power companies couldn’t control everything people did with power.”
The pessimistic version is, they won’t stop, anywhere –- including Mr. Reeves’s business. Either way, they are likely to keep coming for a while.


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