Open...and Shut Jeff Hammerbacher, one of Facebook's early employees, is dismayed. Instead of innovation, he worries that "the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." Take heart, Jeff: it could be worse. They could instead be thinking about how to stifle competition through lawsuits and government regulation.
Actually, many are. The lawyer types, anyway. Unfortunately, a rising number of tech's business and development leaders are starting to look a lot like the dinosaur industries they're displacing as they seek to compete on the (de)merits of legal theory, rather than on the quality of their code. As the size of the tech pie gets bigger, and tech wizards reshape mega-industries like advertising, publishing, and more, those same techies increasingly compete on the basis of court-ordered injunctions and U.S. congressional lobbying.
Sad, but true.
For example, Apple, not content to mint billions through its exceptional products, now wants to cripple its closest tablet competitor, Samsung, through a patent suit. Not that Apple is alone. The mobile industry is overrun with lawyers lobbing lawsuits onto the palm tree-lined campuses of their competitors. But it's not just about intellectual property infringement suits. The other arena for competition is government regulation.
Given that governments now pay much more attention to technology, it's perhaps not surprising that Silicon Valley pays more and more attention to government. Government arguably does little to help tech companies, but it has the potential to do serious damage, as Microsoft learned to its hurt, and to the detriment of all tech companies.
While the U.S. federal government and the European Union paid attention to tech before Microsoft, Microsoft more than any other company placed a big bulls-eye on the tech world. (And look at all the good government regulation did us. By the time it got around to fining Microsoft, the market had already moved on.)
Having felt the sting of government regulation, Microsoft now wants to influence regulators to bully its own competition, particularly Google. It may well succeed. But it's not an outcome that Microsoft or any other tech company should cheer.
As Datamation's Mike Elgan argues, Google is now under fire from regulators, and like Microsoft before it, is likely to come out of the experience worse for the wear:
None of this action threatens Google's survival as a business. The more likely outcome is that the company will be nickel-and-dimed to death, and shackled by audits, rules, oversight and government-supervised business practices that do not apply to its competitors.
Google will be forced to hire attorneys, lobbyists, and marketers to polish its public image. It will be required to pay fines here, there and everywhere.
All this will take place as Facebook laughs all the way to the bank. But don't laugh too hard, Facebook: You're next.
Unfortunately, Facebook is preparing the old-fashioned way: its lobbying spend increased by 400 percent in Q1 2011 alone. Facebook responds by increasing its lobbying, while Google does the same, and also attempts to buy up a massive patent war chest to block would-be litigants.
Is this what we want? Probably not. But it's exactly what we get when we, the tech world, decide to compete with lawyers and lobbyists instead of developers and salespeople. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.