Nothing lasts forever. None of the great nation-states or empires – Babylon; Rome; France, either Bourbon or Bonapartist; Britain in her Elizabethan then imperial glory – have succeeded in maintaining global ascendancy for long, since in life, politics and trade, what goes up must eventually come down. Which, if nothing else, is a paradigm for the decline of the fastest growing empires in history – the software giants. Microsoft, creaking, looks to be on the way down, a tortoise in the company of greyhounds. There’s been a torrent of hysterical reaction to Apple’s quarterly results plus feverish speculation about its future almost every time they’ve been published. When people begin to panic about a quarterly net profit of $8.2 billion (Q4 last year), planet Earth and its comforting grip on reality is a long way away. We’ve been mesmerized for years by Apple’s metamorphosis from a failing computer manufacturer into a corporate giant – there are over eighty million iPhones in the world – how much bigger can it get? On some days, it is now the most valuable company in the world, with bigger cash reserves than the annual GDP of some countries. There really is an inevitability about its downward spiral – but the question remains – how far and how long will it take?
Then there’s Facebook, used by one-seventh of the planet’s population, which is likewise the focus of much hyperventilation. Recently, the Zuckerberg empire launched its newest weapon of mass intoxication with the catchy name of Graph Search – as in “social graph”. Facebook’s new tool is just an algorithm that finds information from within one’s network of friends and supplements the results with hits from Bill Gates’ Bing search engine, but to read some of the commentary on it you’d imagine that Zuckerberg and friends had invented either a perpetual motion engine or a transit visa for hell. In essence, Graph Search is an attempt to cluster Internet users into spaces that are more easily managed, but, the Internet is a wild animal and there’s too much interesting stuff out there to snare people into searching wherever Bing or Google think they ought to go.
As I trawl through the current overheated commentary on Apple and Facebook, I’m reminded more and more frequently that sic transit gloria mundi. I have been in this game long enough to remember a time when Microsoft was dominant, innovative and scary, Apple was a geeky little mouse in a corner and Facebook was a game for Harvard undergraduates to find girls. Now the Windows are only half open and they are being outstripped in the race to the clouds. Gates himself prophesied his own downfall to some extent after he remarked a few years ago that the cost of hardware would plummet – in consequence his expensive software costs as much as the machines it runs on.
Outcomes might well be the same but causes differ. Apple make things that people want – indeed stampede – to buy, assembled in gigantic Chinese sweatshops with huge margins hence the volume of product generated is awesomely huge and worldwide markets still expanding exponentially. People who don’t own a computer in Ethiopia can get online with a phone. Facebook don’t make anything – they just provide a service which people currently value and if such a service becomes redundant it will most probably be because the Zuckerberg moles have burrowed too intrusively into people’s lives since this is the only way of generating enough advertising revenue to keep it afloat. I think it unlikely that despite the fact that, yes, I want an iPhone 5, the technology indispensables of today will ever be relegated to the footnotes of Internet history but a time is surely coming when they will be seen as quaintly old-fashioned. Like Proust’s novels.