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HomeTechBig Tech’s Battle Royale Is Coming. The Winner? You.

Big Tech’s Battle Royale Is Coming. The Winner? You.

And billionaire Twitter owner Elon Musk and billionaire Meta Platforms Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg have agreed—at least through social-media posts—to do just that. (See my video for a breakdown of why.)

Whether we get a debut of “The Real Cage Fights of Silicon Valley” or not, these titans putting up their dukes is a good metaphor for big tech’s current rivalries. And these rivalries have only gotten more intense after the pandemic, the tech stock crash and the arrival of generative artificial intelligence.

No more frenemies—it’s enemies all the way now.

AI is “making everyone anxious,” Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University and former special assistant to President Biden for competition and technology policy, told me. “There’s a real possibility that a company comes out of nowhere and eats one of these longstanding players alive.”

AI will only intensify the current competition between these tech giants. What does that mean for us? Possibly better tech. Possibly an AI-pocalypse. Here’s what you need to know about where these rivalries stand and how they are shifting.

The current state of affairs

Let’s call this Big Tech Wars 101, where we fast forward through decades of innovation and strategy to break down the fights:

• Search: There’s Google and there’s…Google. It holds 93% of the global search engine market share while Microsoft Bing has long held a Raisinet-size 3%, according to analytics company StatCounter. Microsoft’s foray into generative AI with the new ChatGPT-powered Bingwas meant, at least in part, to restart the search wars.

Search is very important to us users because we need answers to burning questions such as “Why don’t dogs wear pants?” And it’s really important to the tech companies because they can sell ads for doggy pants.

• Social media: Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta. TikTok. Twitter. LinkedIn. Snapchat. They’ve all figured out ways to keep us scrolling through never-ending feeds of text, photos and videos. It used to be about users seeing each other, but lately it’s more about us being fed memes and addictively silly videos. These companies compete for our eyeballs and our time because—again—ads.

That’s partially what the Musk vs. Zuck fight is all about. Meta is preparing to launch a Twitter competitor, a new app that integrates with Instagram but focuses on text-based updates.

• Platforms: Good old operating systems, the tech battle classic. (See history books for Gates vs. Jobs.) Today, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android dominate the fight. The companies want you to buy into their ecosystems of hardware (phones, tablets, computers), software (mail, notes, messaging, etc.) and services (App Stores, music, movies, etc.). They make money on it all.

Microsoft ceded the mobile space, but Windows still competes on laptops and desktops. And competitors including Meta and the parent company of TikTok are arming themselves against Apple for the next big platform war: mixed-reality headsets.

• Cloud computing: We’ve arrived at the tech equivalent of watching a snail race: enterprise cloud systems. Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS are used by companies all around the world to power cloud services, including websites and other tools we all use. Largely invisible to us users, these systems basically power the internet.

Just last week Google filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Microsoft uses unfair practices to box out competition in the cloud-computing market. A Microsoft spokesman said the company has made changes to address concerns and provide more opportunity for cloud providers.

I know, I know. I’ve left out the Amazon-dominating commerce competition and the streaming melee (Netflix, YouTube, etc.). Maybe I’ll come back to those at a later date—especially if more fisticuffs are threatened.

The coming state of AI

Now look at that list above. Each of them stands to be pummeled by AI—starting with search.

I find myself skipping Google and going right to OpenAI’s ChatGPT on a daily basis for simple recipes and famous Rocky quotes.

And then there’s Microsoft’s Bing, a nearly forgotten relic turned fun new toy—and potential renewed threat to Google. Bing incorporates OpenAI technology through a multibillion-dollar partnership. Famous nice-guy CEOs Satya Nadella (Microsoft) and Sundar Pichai (Google) aren’t headed for a real boxing ring, but they’re already in a figurative one, throwing words instead of punches.

Google rushed to release generative AI products, including its Bard chatbot and a new search experience that’s currently in beta. So far, the winner in that battle is…us.

“The fact that they’re fighting very fiercely is probably good for consumers,” Jim Bessen, executive director of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative at Boston University, told me.

Ditto for social media and the platforms. Meta has released AI models and research. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has incorporated AI tools for improving posts, and Snap has an OpenAI-powered chatbot in its app. Microsoft has started to incorporate AI in Windows, Word, Excel and other products. Google has done the same in Docs, Sheets and more. And you can expect Apple will do the same.

The cloud businesses also stand to greatly benefit from AI. Amazon, Microsoft and Google have put generative AI at the center of their business-to-business sales pitches, according to my colleagues.

Here’s the really exciting part for all of us: The companies that dominate our lives in the coming decade might not be any of the traditional big-tech players.

Hardly anyone had heard of OpenAI a year ago, now it’s a household name. Sure, it’s got Microsoft as a protector, but it’s partnering with many more apps and services beyond Microsoft, integrating ChatGPT and other AI tools.

“It would be nice if, out of this shake-up, we had some new blood,” Wu said. That would probably mean fewer cage fights, real or imagined. “Actual entrepreneurs wouldn’t have time to do that kind of thing,” he said. “They’d be trying to figure out a way to make a better product.”

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