Satyam Agarwal

Product Manager, MBA from IIMC, B.Tech from IIT Roorkee

6:27 PM, 10th May 2018

How Facebook is using Google's Playbook to beat it

2004 was a seminal year for the Internet Economy. Those were the days when smartphones didn't exist and the computer users were still getting comfortable with Windows XP. Facebook was being born, Apple was yet to launch iphone, and Amazon was much smaller. Google was the top search engine, but just a search engine. Microsoft lead the pack of tech companies around the Globe with its Windows operating system, in the days when Moore's law was still valid and PC adoption was rapidly increasing around the World.

Microsoft's position was considered to be unassailable in the World at that time, with market shares of both Windows and MS Office touching 90%, while IE having 70% market share despite the compeitition like Mozilla fielding a better Firefox browser for years. Then Google launched Gmail. Promising significantly higher storage space, and simpler, lighter interface (much faster on dial up connections of those days), the new product rapidly snatched market share from incumbents such Yahoo mail and Hotmail to become the preferred email client.

Once Google captured the email market with Gmail, they quickly introduced other products on top of it, starting with Google docs, then developed a complete office suite competing directly with MS Office. While Google's Sheet and Docs were nowhere as capable as its MS Office counterparts (In my opinion, they still aren't), they had two big advantages. They were free, everyone having a gmail account could use docs for free, and they allowed for easy collaboration. These, along with other Google products, were aimed at taking more and more share of the time the user spent online. This was followed by Google Chrome, to replace IE as predominant internet browser. Google added extensions to Chrome to provide more and more functionality to its users, and finally even launched a separate Chromium Operating system aimed to be used to run primarily web based applications. The idea was simple, since Google can't beat Microsoft on native desktop, they decided to take all the users on the browser, where Google was in a much stronger position. This coincided with rapid growth in internet coverage and speed around the world (which has historically grown even faster than Moore's Law), which further increased usage of Google's products. Finally in 2012, Google passed Microsoft in terms of Market Capitalization.

This was done without directly challenging Microsoft on its strong ground of PC operating systems, but simply decreasing value of the ground by moving the users away from the OS. Because of Google's efforts, developing a website which could be indexed by Google would become much more valuable than developing an application that could run on Windows, completely destroying Microsoft's strong market. This is partially the reason for poorer performance of later Windows Operating systems, where users didn't need to upgrade simply because they could access the same websites and thereby web functionality even on older versions of Windows, making the newer versions less valuable.

Today, Google is in similar position as Microsoft of 2004. Smartphones have replaced desktops and laptops as the dominant computing medium and they run on Google's Android Operating system. Like Windows once, Android today commands 90% of market share in Smartphone operating systems, and Google grip over the market is further strengthened through its flagship products such as Gmail, Maps, Chrome and Play Store. However, like in the last decade, Google developed web as a platform where the user could access similar functionality with ease and lower costs, Facebook is developing its Messenger Platform.

The Messenger platform was announced by Mark Zuckerberg during F8 2016, as a means to access functionality of a software service provider without having to install an app for the same, much like Google enabled users to quickly search websites and use them without having to install a Windows application. The interesting thing about this Messenger platform is how quickly Facebook has been able to bring its promise to market. While Google's web suite of products took years to build, Facebook already has multiple chatbots and games live on its Messenger platform. And Messenger has done this while shrugging off competition from Google Allo and Snapchat.

The other unique thing about Messenger is its approach to automated conversations. Starting with Apple's Siri, there has been a race among tech companies to build digital assistants which can take a more humanlike approach towards meeting user's need. We now have Google now, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana in addition to Siri. Facebook initially started off with its own Facebook M, but has quickly removed itself from limelight and brought developers to the forefront. Instead of a single Siri or Cortana hogging up the user's attention, Messenger allows the user to interact with each Chatbot separately, imbibing them different personalities, and giving the developers more control over the services they provide. This developer first approach could make all the difference when the rubber meets the road and the developers are forced to choose between Messenger and Android. After all, lack of good developer support system was one of the major reasons of the downfall of the Nokia Lumia series of Windows based smartphones.

It is still early days for the Messenger platform, and no definitive prediction can be made about its future success. Android's 90% marketshare is not something you can break in a day, or even in an year. However, Facebook has put a strong step forward, and it is upto Google to respond to ensure that the competition doesn't pull a Google on it.


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