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Three Monopolies We Need to Keep an Eye on

Is it possible that these companies are well on their way to becoming too big for their, and our own, good?

Who doesn’t use Google? Shop on Amazon? Own, or covet, some Apple device? Who doesn’t give thanks to this triumvirate of technology companies for the ways in which they add to our lives?

But is it possible that these companies are well on their way to becoming too big for their, and our own, good?

1. Google: As dominant as ever when we’re searching the Internet

Last week, after a two-year investigation, the FTC absolved Goggle of violating anti-trust laws for favoring its own services in its lucrative search engine. At issue was how Google produces its search results via its top-secret algorithm which, the company maintains, it cannot disclose for competitive reasons.

In its ruling, the FTC said that it found that “Google’s primary purpose … [is] to improve the user experience.” Google itself contends that it is “unbiased and objective” and that its search results are “the best we know how to produce.” But given that its enormous revenue is derived from this very source, questions remain.

Google made an all-out offensive to lobby Washington, a lesson learned from studying the 1990s experience of Microsoft, which was charged with monopolization for tying its Internet Explorer browser to closely go with its Windows operating system. From this, some critics think the FTC let Google off too easy though, as Ars Technica points out, more than a few of those who have been expressing displeasure at the FTC’s ruling are precisely Google’s rivals including Microsoft.

The European Commission is to issue a ruling on Google soon and is expected to be less lenient. The reason is that “American antitrust regulators tend to focus on whether a company’s dominance harms consumers; the European system seeks to keep competitors in the market,” says the New York Times. Another factor is that Google holds an 83 percent share of the European search market, vs. 67 percent of the U.S.’s. It could be only a matter of time before the “antitrust rap” could catch up to Google — or maybe not.

2. Amazon: Poised to become the only store on earth

Holiday sales at Barnes and Noble were down 12 percent from last year’s. While there been reports of some independent bookstores thriving (hooray!), Amazon, for all that it does not make a profit (indeed, its profit was down by 96 percent in the second quarter of 2012) inexorably continues its domination as the world’s online purveyor of seemingly everything from clothes to food to books (real and electronic).

Amazon’s prices are always hard to beat and every time you turn around it seems Amazon’s added yet another business, be it streaming movies or its cloud service. Who hasn’t heard of an independent book or other store that closes its doors because it couldn’t compete with Amazon? Yet we still keep going back.

3. Apple: Does any tablet beside the iPad matter?

The iPad’s touchscreen and size made it the device I (and quite a few others) had been looking for. It was the first device my teenage autistic son could use on his own to hear music, watch videos, look at photos after years of deep frustration trying, unsuccessfully, to use a computer mouse. The iPad’s design was the answer.

The iPad’s marketshare has declined from an all-time high in August due to competition from Google’s Android and Amazon’s Kindle. Analysts are predicting that increased adoption by businesses will help Apple to reconquer the market; Germany could even be called “Appleland” due to the popularity of the company’s products there, says the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Back in June, Microsoft’s Surface tablet was announced with much fanfare but has since been little heard from and sales of software for PCs have been in decline, as well as sales of PCs themselves. It’s certainly harder and harder not to think of the iPads and tablet computers as one in the same.

It took someone with a novel way of thinking to design the iPad and other Apple devices that have made a big difference. But we can’t expect one company to keep producing all the innovative ideas. Just at the end of last week, Pinterest announced that it was taking over recipe site Punchfork. This is probably not the greatest loss or saddest occasion in the history of either the Internet or of corporate mergers. But as Alex Hern writes in the New Statesman, the annexation (ok, swallowing up) of Punchfork by Pinterest means that another idea, another novel way of doing something, will no longer exist.

It’s a loss of diversity on the web perhaps comparable in some ways to the shrinking biodiversity of wildlife as more species of animals and plants face extinction. A world of only McDonalds, Starbucks and Walmart sounds hardly appealing — a world in which Google, Amazon and Apple are the only big players would be just as poor.

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