One of the most frustrating features of the current era in high tech -- that is, the years since the bursting of the dot.com bubble and 9/11 -- has been the comparative lack of competition.
Part of the fun of being an observer of the tech revolution all these years, particularly here at Ground Zero in Silicon Valley, is the epic, human frisson that comes from really brutal market competition: the companies stealing each others' employees (and sometimes their technologies), the rich and famous who lose their cool in public, the unforgivable slights and cuts that take place everywhere from cocktail parties to industry conferences, the companies that sweep the table and the companies that bet it all … and go down in flames.
This is the Silicon Valley I love, and it was at its best in the late '60s (when Fairchild blew up and the scores of new chip companies fought to the death), in the early '80s (when the personal computer boom surfaced maniacs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates), and, as noted, in the late '90s, when everybody became a paper millionaire overnight and went insane in the process.
Unfortunately, the past few years -- the Web 2.0 years -- have been comparatively dull. Sure, there have been a lot of great companies created, fortunes made and some of the greatest consumer products in tech history introduced. But, somehow, the big companies, old and new, seemed to have slipped right past each other. They've carved out spaces of their own and rarely tread upon each other's turf.
Even the few outright collisions have been oddly anticlimactic. Hewlett-Packard and Dell were supposed to duel to the death over the PC market -- until Dell shot itself first. Facebook and MySpace seemed destined to collide over the social network world -- until MySpace unexpectedly became the land of the pervs and the uncool.
Then, there was Google vs. Microsoft vs. Yahoo -- but Google won almost on the first day, Microsoft acted its usual boring self and the only entertainment was how badly Yahoo would be managed until it finally cratered. Meanwhile, Apple's offerings, from iTunes to the iPod to the iPhone, were so revolutionary that they created their own competition-free spaces.
All that was good news for a lot of people, including us consumers. But it sure wasn't very exciting watching all those corporate gentlemen bowing and nodding and politely insisting that the other company go first. And, who knows? All of that solicitous behavior may have cost us all some of those great products and inventions that only appear when angry competitors throw all caution to the wind and head for each other at ramming speed.
In all, the past seven years of high tech can be characterized by a dozen or so major companies, each with a lock on their marketplace, and each doing their damndest not to interfere with each other's success.
But now, refreshingly, those locks look like they are about to be picked.
Everywhere you look right now, companies are moving fast to step on each other's turf. And when I say fast, please note that almost none of this had surfaced even three months ago -- and, now, almost everything seems to be in play.