Why Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon want to be each other

Suddenly, major tech companies are flipping out, remaking themselves to be more like their competitors

I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the corporate campus fence. This week was a loony one for tech news. Four major technology companies announced expensive and risky programs to become less like themselves and more like their competitors.

Twitter wants to be Facebook

One of the reasons Twitter is the favorite social site for influential singers, actors, technology influencers and industry luminaries, is a set of quirky, minimalist attributes.

The most celebrated and obvious is a 140-character limit on the size of tweets. This limitation makes it easy to send a tweet, and super easy to read a stream of tweets.

Speaking of tweets, the use of the word tweet is one of Twitter's charms. Others include endearingly antiquated features like the use of @ replies and hashtags.

Suddenly, however, all this is in peril as Twitter appears to be suffering a fit of Facebook-envy.

Twitter this week unceremoniously made it possible for up to four pictures to be posted in a single tweet, and up to 10 people to be tagged in each photo. That makes both the posting of tweets and the reading of a stream more burdensome and time-consuming than it used to be. It'll be like, you know, reading Facebook. The reason for it is at least partly Facebookian as well. All that tagging sends advertising-enhancing "signals" to Twitter. It also forces interaction -- people tagged will be notified, and essentially lured into an engagement with Twitter to see what the you've-been-tagged-in-a-photo notification is all about.

We also learned this week that Twitter is reportedly experimenting with the elimination of both @ replies and hashtags, and the transformation of the "Tweet" button to say "Share."

If those other changes come to pass, Twitter as we know it will be no more. Instead, we'll have a much more Facebook-like Twitter.

Facebook wants to be Google

Facebook, meanwhile, is suffering from Google envy.

While Mark Zuckerberg has been toiling away trying to prevent a general flight from Facebook to smaller social sites by first creating the Poke app to stem the flow to Snapchat and then spending a fortune on Instagram and Whatsapp, he's no doubt looked with envy at all the fun Sergey Brin and Andy Rubin have been having at Google.

Brin has been loosely in charge of Google's many moonshot projects, from self-driving Priuses to Google Glass to balloons that deliver Internet connectivity to remote areas of the world.

Rubin, meanwhile, was reassigned a year ago. He went from running Google's Android group to being placed in charge of Google's terrifying army of robots, which Google bought in a frenzied binge.

What does a search engine company want with a gas-powered robotic mule? In Silicon Valley, that's the wrong question.

What does a search engine company want with a gas-powered robotic mule?

In Silicon Valley, that's the wrong question. The question is: If a robot mule exists and can be bought -- and you've got billions to spend -- why wouldn't you buy it?

Besides, the future will arrive sooner than you think. The only way to survive as a technology company is to re-invent yourself. You can't wait until the future is clear. You have to buy everything that looks promising and hope for the best.

That's the lesson Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned from Google. Suddenly, his company is going nuts with the moonshot projects.

Facebook this week announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, a maker of virtual reality products useful mainly for total immersion gaming.

Sure, Zuckerberg justified the purchase by saying that virtual reality might one day be social, or the platform of the future. But a future in which people socialize by entering shared VR spaces wearing giant goggles on their faces is so far away that acquiring Oculus VR doesn't really give the company an advantage in that future.

Zuckerberg also announced this week something called the Facebook Connectivity Lab, which is a new division of Facebook that's bringing Internet connectivity to the poor using -- wait for it! -- drones, satellites and laser beams.

Why does a social network need a space program? Wrong question!

I suspect the real reason for all this is that Zuck is tired of Google having all the fun.

Google wants to be Amazon

Google, meanwhile, appears to have a case of Amazon envy. Sure, Amazon is a killer online retailer. But two aspects of Amazon really stand out. The first is that the company was an early leader in the provision of cloud computing services with its Amazon Web Services offering.

The second is that Amazon always favors low profit margins in order to cut costs to aggressively take customers from competitors. By using a zero- or less-than-zero margin price to suck the oxygen out of a market, Amazon is able to suffocate the competition, then take over. Consider the case of Diapers.com, in which Amazon deployed its sophisticated army of price-undercutting bots to sell diapers cheaper than Diapers.com no matter what. And once the company was near death, Amazon swooped in and bought it cheap.

Now, Google is going after Amazon's business of general cloud services, and it's using Amazon's price suffocation strategy to do it.

Amazon wants to be Apple

Amazon, we learned this week, looks to be making a play for the living room to compete against Apple for the future of streaming, on-demand video content. In that area, Amazon would also be competing against Microsoft. And Google. And Roku. You get the picture.

We don't know the specifics, but it appears that Amazon on Wednesday may announce some kind of streaming TV, movie and music-video offering that probably involves a set-top box and console-style gaming.

Why would an online bookstore need to sell a home-entertainment system?

Wrong question!

To a certain extent, all this is happening because technology companies know that technology companies fall after they rise. They fall because they fail to lead the Next Big Thing, they allow themselves to become obsolete, or they allow their competitors to get too big and powerful to fail.

That knowledge leads companies to want what their competitors want. Twitter wants Facebook's huge follower base. Facebook wants Google's moonshot street cred. Google wants Amazon's market share. And Amazon wants Apple's ubiquity.

Which is fine. But companies need to be careful and make sure that, in trying to thrill people who aren't their customers yet, they don't forget to serve the customers they already have.

This article, " Why Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon Want to Be Each Other," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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