The Myth of the Benign Monopoly

For years, at various times, tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Apple have all been referred to as “benign monopolies.” Companies tend to earn that moniker when they reach a certain level of dominance in global markets, and have command over widespread standards. But now, more than ever, it’s worth remembering that extreme market dominance introduces trends that are far from benign.

As I look through many of today’s biggest tech headlines, and popular interpretations of them, I’m struck by how unpredictable people are at both leveling criticism against and showering praise on tech companies that command extreme global market power. Antitrust concerns, for example, are seen as a “mark of Google’s success.” And Adobe Flash apparently doesn’t need a kick in the pants or a challenge from competing and possibly better technologies; instead, it has worked beautifully for over 15 years. And just look at the flame war I incited in a recent post on Apple, when I suggested that it is increasingly pursuing closed policies, with the iPad shaping up to be the company’s most closed product ever.

In a post today titled “Is Monogamy Good for Technology?” Matt Asay describes the conundrums he is facing as he takes on his new job as COO of Canonical, which, of course, requires him to use Ubuntu Linux. A longtime user of all things Apple, Asay notes that Apple COO Tim Cook has recently suggested “that the magic of Apple is its seamless interoperability with other Apple technology.” Certainly, I have heard many Apple users praise the company’s products for working so well together, even as critics argue that closed technology is the byproduct of that phenomenon. Google, meanwhile, draws much praise for open policies, but has also made clear that its attitude toward openness isn’t entirely altruistic.

It’s worth noting that big commercial technology companies throw their weight around the world in increasingly anti-open, and dangerous, ways. As OStatic notes today, the powerful International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) has just produced a 498-page report for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative arguing that government mandates to use open-source software must be “carefully monitored.”

The IIPA report recommends that numerous entire countries be placed on international watchlists because their governments favor such software, which it characterizes as a threat to innovation. A closer look at the report, though, shows that its recommendations are made in conjunction with the Business Software Alliance, which counts among its members Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, IBM and many other large commercial software providers.

I’m in agreement with Asay that “no vendor dominates innovation once and for all.” While it is true that the most powerful technology companies have helped establish standardized ways for things to work together, it’s also true that closed policies and total market dominance must be questioned — always.

Innovation all around the world depends on countries, governments, companies and users finding harmonious ways to work together. Just ask the Chinese science community, which has made clear that without Google’s technology, its research efforts will suffer enormously. Now, more than ever, there needs to be a healthy and open global ecosystem for technology innovation, and the most dominant technology companies bear great responsibility for protecting it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier.

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