Thursday, March 31, 2011

Culture Shock 03.31.11: Technology dominance is fleeting

In the past week, has quietly released two new products that are likely to significantly escalate the ongoing cold war between the technology world's three major superpowers.

Last week, Amazon opened an app store, offering free and paid applications for devices that run on Google's Android operating system and becoming the first direct challenger to Google's own Android Market.

That also fed rumors that Amazon is working on its own Android version of its already popular Kindle e-reader, which might just finally be the device that mounts a serious challenge to Apple's iPad.

Then, Monday night, Amazon rolled out its Amazon Cloud Player, which allows users to upload music and videos, which they can then play from any desktop or notebook computer's Web browser or, using Amazon's Cloud Player app, from any Android-powered smartphone or tablet device. Imagine accessing your entire MP3 collection from your work computer or your phone. You'll probably have to buy extra storage space to do it, even though Amazon offers 5 gigs free and another 20 GB with the purchase of any CD download. But now you can do just that.

And as the sun rose Tuesday morning, some tech pundits were wondering if Amazon's Cloud was about to rain all over Apple's iTunes.

Both Apple and Google are reportedly working on systems similar to the Amazon Cloud, but now they're playing catch-up. And Apple in particular isn't used to playing from behind.

Notice something interesting yet?

We're talking about the major players in consumer technology in 2011: a book retailer that branched out into digital media, a computer manufacturer that revived its fortunes by selling music and a company that started out with just a website that helped you find other websites. But who's missing from this list?


Yes, Microsoft — the software giant that dominated personal computing for most of the past 20 years. The company that became so large and so powerful that its competitors accused it of being a monopoly. (How can you be a monopoly if you have competitors?) The Evil Empire targeted by lawsuits and justice departments in both the U.S. and Europe.

That Microsoft. You know, the one that barely seems relevant anymore.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced it had discontinued its Zune music player. Launched in 2006, Zune was Microsoft's attempt to challenge Apple's iPod, but it came along far too late to make a dent in the market.

Microsoft just recently launched its own Windows 7 smartphone system, and from what I've seen it's not bad. But, once again, it's a bit late to Apple and Google's party.

Even if Microsoft still controls the lion's share of desktop operating systems, that's not a safe place to be when the future of computing looks a lot more like something you carry around in a backpack or purse.

In the end, the lawsuits and antitrust cases didn't really hurt Microsoft, but an inability to adapt did, which makes all that hand wringing about Microsoft's dominance back in the 1990s seem more than a little silly now. Dominance is fleeting.

Just ask Rupert Murdoch, who bought MySpace for $580 million in 2005 and then proceeded to mismanage the website into oblivion, allowing Facebook, which is not without its own annoyances, to become the social networking site of record. Now Murdoch's Newscorp is in talks with the music-video site Vevo for some kind of deal that might salvage something from Murdoch's investment.

MySpace and Microsoft became complacent, which is why they're no longer of any real consequence.

Meanwhile, Amazon, Google and Apple should consider themselves lucky they have each other to keep them all thinking about the future.

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