Review of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google” by Scott Galloway
A book that discusses and takes on the tech companies (Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon) that the author, Scott Galloway, regards as the four horsemen. It is more entertaining but less detailed and focused than others of the same vein. Galloway has an eclectic biography that informs his book — professor at NYU, early e-commerce entrepreneur, and former board-member of the New York Times.
These experiences have brought him some unique ideas that make the book worth reading, even if one disagrees with him. For example, he regards Apple as the big four company most likely to keep its dominance in the 22nd century because it is a luxury brand analogous to Louis Vuitton, which was founded in 1854. I am not sure whether I agree. Unlike luxury brands in fashion, design and innovation in consumer technology devices is driven by advances in engineering progress, to which Apple has no monopoly. A closer but still not perfect analogy may be the luxury car market, which has seen some changes at the top in the last 100 years.
On the other hand, he considers Google a one trick pony (search, funded by advertising) which is vulnerable due to potential upcoming battles with Europe and the US regarding data privacy and advertising.
If I were making such a list, I’d have, in order of most to least vulnerable: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google, with a somewhat large gap between Apple and Amazon — but none particularly vulnerable.
Overall, he considers all these companies far more vulnerable than I did: the general public historically has considered these companies to be sexy, smart, and fantastically beneficial to society, and this view has led to a brilliant run of political success (avoiding taxes and regulation), a distinct advantage in hiring the best talent, and cheap capital. However, like Microsoft before them (and IBM/AT&T before it), they may lose such favor, especially if fights with regulators and further scandals render the companies un-hip. The infrastructure, data, and time advantages these companies have in key sectors are significant, he argues, but so is the (potential) loss of talent and cheap capital. If the last six months are any indication (Galloway wrote the book in early 2017), it seems as if Facebook has already started going down this road. Nevertheless, he (and I) are worried about the out-sized influence of such companies.
The part I find most interesting (though again, I’m withholding judgement on whether the ideas would work) is the discussion on media, and what the old-guard media companies could have done against Google and Facebook back in the early 2010s. Here, Galloway is recounting a personal story of when, as a New York Times board-member, he led an ultimately failed effort to get the company to fight back against Facebook and Google. He suggested that the company could have formed a media consortium which prevented all scraping and on-site delivery by search engines and Facebook, and then sold such rights to the highest bidder. This consortium would thus have better monetized the service it was providing tech companies. As Galloway tells it, the NYT CEO did not go along with the plan because it was worried that Google would retaliate by downgrading the content farm About.com, which NYT owned at the time (Google ended up downgrading all content farms eventually anyway, and the NYT sold About.com at a loss). I’m not sure the effort would have succeeded, but the idea serves as the centralized analogue to what some academics are proposing regarding data markets, where we as consumers are paid for the informational content we provide these companies for free.