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Alternative futures part 1: How our tech world could be so very different

Updated: May 17, 2019

When trying to make sense of the way things are and predict where we’re headed, it can be helpful to think about what nearly was. There are lots of things in our technology-rich world that we just take for granted. Or if we stop to think about them for a moment, we just assume they would have happened anyway as they were the logical next step in the never ending march of progress.

But progress isn’t a straight line, it’s full of zig zags, even reverses. And thinking about how things that seem natural and normal to us today but might so easily have been very different, or even not happened at all, can help us better understand our world, and how it will continue to change.

So here are a few major alternative history What Ifs to ponder that shed major insight onto our tech and media world…

Amazon delays its 2000 bond offering by a month

In February 2000, five-year old online book store Amazon raised nearly $700 million in a bond offering. Less than a month later, the dot com crash hit and the debt markets slammed abruptly shut for all digital start ups. Over the coming months and years countless formerly high flying profit-less ‘new media’ startups went out of business as they ran out of cash and were forced into bankruptcy.

Amazon however had this new cash hoard which it could and would use to successfully survive the dot com winter. Without it, things would have been very different. Amazon may have been able to avoid going out of business, but there’s no reason to believe it definitely would. And even if it had survived the digital recession, without its 2000 cash hoard it wouldn’t have had the same resources it had to expand into new retail categories and countries and launch one of the pillars of its current success, Amazon Marketplace.

By the time things stabilised, Amazon was more ahead of its competitors than ever and far beyond its original core business of online book selling.

Alternative History Verdict: Complete game changer. Without its fortuitous bond offering and cash reserves, Amazon would either have been severely held back from pursuing the expansion it pursued in the early 2000s, or just gone and now be another cautionary tale in the companies of web 1.0 that tried and failed to make this internet thing work.

The Apple/Motorola phone is a success

After its very real near death experience in the 1990s, by the early 2000s Apple had its mojo back in style and was flying thanks to the enormous success of the iPod. But Steve Jobs and his top brass knew that there was a looming threat to this happy story, and that was the global explosion in mobile phones. It was only a matter of time before the handset and the portable music player converged, at which point it would be the iPod that was quite literally left behind.

Jobs didn’t feel that Apple had the right skills and knowledge to succeed in the telecoms business and so he teamed up with major manufacturer Motorola, and in September 2005 the Rokr E1, the first ever phone with built in iTunes launched. It was a disaster. It only held a 100 tracks, didn’t work properly when Jobs demonstrated it at the launch, and he was furious.

The experience was a deeply sobering one for Jobs and he resolved that Apple would do the phone-music player convergence properly themselves. In the greatest of secrecy, Apple worked flat out and less than two years later, in June 2007, the iPhone was unveiled. You know the rest.

The Rokr E1 was clearly not a good enough phone and its days were numbered before they even began given its terrible launch, poor design and clunky software. For an Apple priority project, one designed don’t forget to see off an existential threat, it was a very long way from being the coolest phone out there. At this time there was one handset that was by far the coolest model in the world. It definitely wasn’t the Rokr. Rather it was the Razr. Launched a year earlier. By Motorola.

As well as Apple wanting to partner with a handset manufacturer, Motorola had actually been bugging Apple for ages to team up. So when they did, when Motorola was the coolest handset maker in the world, for some incredible reason Motorola chose to go with one of their least inspiring designs for their Apple partnership.

But imagine for a moment they had instead built on the Razr design, and the teams had actually worked effectively at integrating Apple’s software into the Razr’s, and you would have had a very cool phone setting the agenda for the impending convergence of the iPod and mobiles.

Without a doubt this would not have been a long term sustainable situation. Apple was no more likely then than now to settle for co-partner status on such an important project. But rather than the iPhone - and by extension, all smart phones - being the product of Apple engineers and designers working in complete secrecy and isolation when it was, Apple would have spent longer learning about the phone business, and may have continued cooperating with Motorola for some time to come.

We’d still have ended up with iPhones and smart phones looking and working as they do, the seemingly unchanging ubiquitous look of all smart phones shows how well the design works. But we wouldn’t have in 2007, and maybe not for several more years afterwards. Which also means the App Store wouldn’t have happened when it did.

Alternative History Verdict: Medium level difference. We’d likely have ended up at the same place, but via a longer journey, and some companies who caught the smart phone or app store waves when they did, might never have had the chance.

Google sells to Yahoo (1)

Google and Yahoo danced around each other a lot in their early days. It’s not surprising. Yahoo was founded in 1994 and rapidly became one of the digital giants of the 1990s. While navigating the new wonder of the web was the reason most people came to Yahoo originally, the company was always clear its ambitions lay far beyond mere ‘search’. No, it was a ‘portal’, your entry way to all things internet, from e-mail to shopping to chat to video to groups to everything online.

Google meanwhile grew out of a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, and its focus was entirely on search. Like all startups at the time, Yahoo was a natural call to make as they got off the ground. The connection was firmly established in 2000 when Yahoo was happy to outsource the technical business of search to Google while they focused on being the best portal they could imagine.

The portal business strategy didn’t work and with the dot com crash of the early 2000s Yahoo found its ambitions severely curtailed. Google however, still a private company at this point, went from strength to strength as internet search exploded and Google found a business model for profiting from it - selling ads against searches.

In 2002, recognising that Google was going to eat their lunch likely sooner rather than later, Yahoo entered serious negotiations to acquire it. Google held out for a price of $5 billion, which was too rich for Yahoo and the company walked away.

Today Google is Google, well Alphabet, and Yahoo is gone. Yahoo had the financial resources to pay Google’s asking price in 2002 so if they had Google would never have listed as an independent company and Page and Brin would have become Yahoo employees.

Most acquisitions don’t fulfil their promise, but I think this one would have done given the complementary nature of the businesses. Google would have given new energy and impetus to Yahoo and Page and Brin would instantly have become very important and influential in Yahoo’s management.

If Google had become even only partially as successful inside Yahoo as it became outside, Yahoo would have become dominated by its Google business in no time. Page and Brin would very likely have become leaders of all of Yahoo in just a few years. Maybe they’d even decide to change the name one day, to say Google, or perhaps something a bit more neutral, like Alphabet.

Alternative History Verdict: Medium level difference. Google would likely effectively now be Yahoo, or vice versa depending on your perspective. Branding and exact products would vary but the core services and offerings would probably be broadly similar. But only probably. Major mergers are always fraught with risk and Google and Yahoo may each have been too well established in their own cultures and approaches to truly mesh at this point.

Google sells to Yahoo (2). Or to AltaVista, or Excite, or…

Dialling back from the above, before the aborted merger negotiations with Yahoo in 2002, or the search deal with the company two years earlier in 2000, things could have turned out very differently indeed for Google.

Right at the start of its existence, in 1998, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still graduate students, Google wasn’t a business idea looking to change the world but was little more than an interesting research project into internet search called PageRank that was taking up far too much of their time.

As they toured Silicon Valley looking for potential investors or partners if they had the right offer they would happily have handed over PageRank completely so they could continue with their studies. The price they would accept for this? Cue your best Austin Powers impressions - $1 million.

However none of the established players in internet search, sorry portals, such as Yahoo, AltaVista or Excite were interested, and so the duo took some investment (including in their first round from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and continued developing their project into a proper company, Google.

If any of the others had taken that chance however, paid the money and taken Google’s tech, who can say whether they would have made anything like the success of it that Google and its engineers certainly did? But we can be sure that Larry Page and Sergey Brin wouldn’t have had anything more to do with it. Quite possibly they would have launched or been drawn to some other tech player or new start up in future years, maybe they might have been asked back to get involved again with their creation. But the globe-straddling colossus that is Google today, we would never have known it.

Alternative History Verdict: Complete game changer. No Page and Brin as business titans, no Gmail, no entry into the language of ‘To Google’ something.

More to come in part 2!

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