Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 14:55 UK

Oiling the digital society

Rev Keith Kimber
We are all technology's children, no matter the company names we take in vain

Squabbling about competition between companies is far less important than the effect they're having on all of us, says Bill Thompson.

The announcement that Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt is standing down from the Apple board hardly came as a surprise.

Google's Android is already powering smartphones that offer an open alternative to Apple's iPhone, while the recent announcement of plans for Chrome OS - an operating system that will directly challenge Mac OS - makes Google a direct competitor to Apple in its core market.

Apple's recent decision to keep Google Voice out of the iPhone App Store must surely have increased tension on the board, and may have been the last straw.

The move not only annoyed customers, who wanted to take advantage of the single phone number and voice-over-IP calls it offers, but has also invited the attention of the US Federal Communications Commission. It has asked Apple, Google and network provider AT&T to provide it with details of their decision making process.

The ongoing Federal Trade Commission investigation into his position and that of the other joint Apple/Google director, Arthur Levinson, may also have been preying on Schmidt's mind, although it seems the investigation will continue even after his departure.

Bill Thompson
We are bootstrapping a new world, one in which information technology and computational systems are as deeply embedded in our society as the scientific method or religious belief seem to be
Bill Thompson

Schmidt's status on the Apple board may have gone from "it's complicated" to "single", but reports that this marks the beginning of all-out war between Google and Apple seem to exaggerate the real importance of the separation, and also to misstate the current state of affairs in the IT industry.

From the inside the competition between Google and Apple, and between either of them and Microsoft, is bitter and intense, as is the rivalry between SAP and Oracle, two large companies that dominate the corporate computing space but rarely get a mention in more consumer-oriented technology coverage.

But the US-based computing industry is one of the bastions of free-market capitalism and we should expect companies to undermine each other, attack each other, use dirty tricks to try to obtain monopolies and ally together in anti-competitive cartels which keep prices up, reduce choice and limit consumer freedom.

It's all part of the great game.

Yet even though individual companies are trying to gain market share and the vast riches that will come from having a dominant position in particular sectors of the technology market, they share an ideological commitment to the increased penetration of computer technology in society, to building a world that is completely dependent on the systems, services, tools and hardware they are capable of providing.

That shared ideology is far more significant than the specifics of particular alliances or clashes over certain parts of the market. Google's Chrome OS, for example, is really just a minor adjustment of pieces on the chess board of the modern computing industry, neither a declaration of intent against Microsoft nor an attempt to annex GNU/Linux into Google's worldview.

It may perhaps change the way the industry evolves, because the widespread availability of a lightweight network-oriented operating system might give strength to those inside Microsoft working on the company's cloud computing strategy, but that does not affect the larger project of embedding information technology in all aspects of our lives.

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The same can be said of the deal between Microsoft and Yahoo!, whereby Microsoft's Bing search engine will power Yahoo! search while Yahoo!'s sales team sell Microsoft online advertising.

Sad though it is is to see Yahoo! drop out of the search space it does not affect the growing importance of search in our online lives. That will continue to grow whether Google or Bing or some small upstart like Cambridge-based True Knowledge dominates the market in 10 years' time.

The current state of the IT industry is similar to that of the oil industry in the latter part of the 19th century, when the availability of oil-based products was starting to transform the wider economy in a way that increased the need for and then created a complete dependence on those same products.

We are bootstrapping a new world, one in which information technology and computational systems are as deeply embedded in our society as the scientific method or religious belief seem to be, and the precise names of the gods we worship is less important than our presence in the church of technology.

So we should keep developments in the IT industry in context. Schmidt's departure from Apple is mildly interesting, but matters little compared to the impact that the landfall of the Seacom fibre-optic cable in Kenya will have on the world once access speeds increase, prices fall and reliability increases to the point where connectivity can be assumed there.

Apple, Google and Microsoft are pieces on the chess board, but the board remains no matter how they are moved or which of them is captured, and we should not allow their manoeuverings to distract us from appreciating the game as a whole.



Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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