Welcome back. Yes, I renamed the newsletter. I think LanceLetter is more in line with the new, meandering nature of this occasional missive. Hope you like it.
Big Tech Hearing Post Mortem
It was quite a moment: four CEOs of the biggest tech companies in the world on one screen, or should I say four small screens. It looked like a Silicon Valley edition of Hollywood Squares, without the center square and corny jokes.
I remain ambivalent about the need to break up any of these companies, but last week’s antitrust hearing was about more than that. It delved deep into their technology, how they treat partners, competitive practices, and how Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook worked to either consume or kill key competition.
While much of the marathon hearing
dealt directly with these topics, there were also moments of showboating, mostly by Republicans, who wanted to prove that companies like Google and Facebook are shadow banning conservative content or even just messing with their email inboxes. It was tiresome.
I do believe its fair and right to hold Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon accountable and to demand more transparency from entities that wield so much market power.
Of course, Amazon wields tremendous power when it comes to third-party sellers on its platform. It’s a scaled up versions of what you might find in a physical shop that hosts third-party products on its shelves, sometimes right next to its own store brands,
The difference for all these companies, though, is scale and reach. Digital makes it possible for each of them to be global entities with unparalleled influence over consumer tastes and choices. Plus, they all gain telemetry on those choices, which drive further choices
The House Judiciary Committee spent hours exploring potential abuses of the competitive marketplace and the possible stifling or consumption of competition. In some ways, though, I think these companies are doing exactly what you’d expect competitors to do,
Competitors are not partners, not friends, and not necessarily kind to each other. Successful companies view each competitor as a threat, though, I have been told many times by companies that the emergence of a new competitor “validates” them and the marketplace. It’s an argument that goes back decades to the time when Microsoft would see that “validation” as a reason to build the competing feature into its core product, which would ultimately kill the competition.
One other thing that became clear is that while it creates high-drama to drag the CEO’s of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies before congress, it’s hard for these men to know all the intricacies of their own businesses. How many times did the CEOs claim (or confirm) ignorance and say they would get back to the congress people with an answer?
I do agree with those who say congress is getting smarter about technology. There were some truly good and pointed questions about each company’s respective technologies and how they might impact partners and competitors. I was especially impressed with Rep. Demings who dug in on Facebook and its monopolistic tendencies and asked Google about cross-site cookies.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had the quote of the day when he called social media firms “nuance destruction machines,” which was more a commentary on cancel culture than on social media, but I think he may be right. Without the benefit of a conversation and physical, social interaction cues, people take whatever is tweeted or posted on social media as the complete story and intention. It never is.
Possibly more important than what happened during those hours of testimony, which was often filled with the CEOs repeating the same facts over and over again, was the treasure trove of documents
released by the House Judiciary Committee after the hearing: secret emails between execs at Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. While they contain few outright revelations, there are some fascinating exchanges. I was struck by the handful of Steve Jobs missives contained within, including a couple written just months before his death.
In the case of Amazon, an exchange between Jeff Bezos and company executive Dave Limp basically reiterated the point the Amazon CEO made in the hearing: He buys companies for market position and not technology.
I’m still grappling with the news that Kodak is now a drug company
. I grew up watching my father shoot on Kodak film and develop on Kodak paper until I started doing it myself. Later I used Fujifilm, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for AstraZeneca…I mean…Kodak.
It hurt to watch Kodak miss opportunity after opportunity until the company was a shadow (or faint exposure) of its former self. News that Kodak was getting a huge government grant to produce medicine to fight COVID threw me. When did Kodak become a drug company? To be fair, it’s using the $765M loan to launch Kodak Pharmaceuticals. I guess that will keep the brand alive, even if it leaves its legacy far behind.
Time ticking down for TikTok
So, Trump wants to force TikTok to divest itself from its parent company, ByteDance, because of ongoing concerns that its ties to China make TikTok a national security risk. IMHO: It’s a national time-waster, not a security risk
Now we wait and see if Microsoft can save the day.
I was not even remotely surprised when Twitter revealed that a spear phishing attack
(by, allegedly, a genius 17-year-old) was used to gain access to critical employees and their access to Twitter’s systems and then the accounts of dozens of high-profile accounts.
It’s another reminder that no one is immune to social engineering attacks and the tech companies who have access to so much of our information need to be doubly prepared and trained to spot and block such attacks.
Finally, I also had some thoughts about CES going all virtual.
You can read them on Medium