Battle of the business models

Wired magazine has a fascinating interview with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, to coincide with the first shipping of the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s rival to the iPad.

What the interview highlights is the way the internet (at least in the English-speaking world) is increasingly concentrating into four “ecosystems” – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – with each of these having a distinctive business model:

  • Apple’s model is hardware-centric. The content it sells through iTunes and the App Store is a means to an end, the end being to sell its highly profitable, premium-priced devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Mac. Its lower-priced devices such as Apple TV and the iPod Touch serve the same end, operating (as I can testify from personal experience!) as a “gateway drug” to the more expensive models by ensuring people buy into the ecosystem.
  • Amazon’s model is content-centric. This is the polar opposite to Apple: Amazon makes money from selling content, and it therefore keeps its device prices at rock-bottom in order to draw people into its content ecosystem. In his interview with Wired, Bezos doesn’t rule out literally giving away the Kindle in future.
  • Google’s model is data-centric. Its mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – not least to make it useful to its advertisers. Hence Google generally gives away its products for free, whether that’s services like Gmail and Picasa for consumers, or the Android operating system for mobile phone developers and networks. The products are aimed at encouraging people to put more and more of their information into Google’s servers.
  • Facebook’s model is social-centric (sorry!). Like Google, its aim is to collect as much data as possible about people so that it can then sell advertising. However, it comes at this at a different angle from Google, building out from people’s social relationships – highly valuable information that is donated to it by its 800m users.

It remains to be seen which of these models will win out or how they will coexist. However, a couple of questions come out of this.

First, you’ll notice that the above list makes no mention of Twitter. Twitter may be a hugely popular service, but it’s a long way from constituting an ecosystem or dominant business model to compete with Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. It’s something that people use, not somewhere that people live.

Second, what does this mean for smaller companies seeking to make money online? Increasingly the routes to do so lie through one or more of those ecosystems: through developing apps for Apple, Android or Facebook, through ensuring a strong presence on Google, through having content available through Amazon. This provides people with a lot of opportunities – just see how the App Store can make software available to tens of millions of potential customers – but also reflects something of a reduction in the “free for all” that has driven innovation online to date.

Something of that concern for a reduction in freewheeling innovation can be seen in Bezos’ criticism of the software and business method patents that helped Amazon in the past, but which he now clearly sees as more of a threat:

For many years, I have thought that software patents should either be eliminated or dramatically shortened. It’s impossible to measure the toll they’ve had on the software industry, but on balance, it has been negative.

Whatever your view on software patents, they are certainly playing a central role in the concentration of internet business into a small number of ecosystems, between which fierce battles rage in patent courts around the world. Again, it remains to be seen what effect this will have on innovation for smaller companies.