Competitive unease hovers over Web 2.0

The Web 2.0 Summit conference in San Francisco made plenty of attendees and speakers nervous about the level of ill will in the Valley these days. But here's a thought: Isn't that just business?

SAN FRANCISCO--There was an uneasiness in the air this week at the stately Palace Hotel during the eighth annual Web 2.0 Summit, the sort of vibe that you couldn't see in the glossy program or in the lineup of events that included talks by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, and big-ticket investors like John Doerr and Fred Wilson. People weren't talking about it, for the most part, but you could see it. You could hear it sometimes, too, if you knew what to listen for.

"We're entering a period of conflict in the Web, a period of intense competition. We're looking at new levels of M&A. We're looking at the decision: do you partner, or do you compete?" conference organizer Tim O'Reilly said in his introduction to Web 2.0 Summit. "They're asking themselves the question: Who do I work with? Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? How am I going to win?"

"Competition," Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz said when asked for the first word that came to mind when she heard the word "Facebook."

"You don't need an app for the Web," criticized Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, taking a potshot at RIM's biggest threat, Apple's iPhone, and the structured, app-based environment it promotes. "You go through some sort of special developer set of tools because there's no other way--we just don't believe that to be true."

"It's overheated. Things are getting crazy. People are showing up to their first meetings with their term sheets," Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson said of the start-ups that are scrambling to take advantage of an open season among both traditional venture capitalists and the individual "angel investors" who are shaking up the financing landscape.

The exclusive Web 2.0 Summit conference began in 2004 as a celebration of the promises of the post-dot-com era Web but has since veered into a clash of the titans, so as to speak. Two years ago, it was about futurism . Last year it was about dealmaking . This year it was about "points of control," according to conference co-organizers Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle. A stylized, Age of Exploration-inspired map hung above the stage, delineating territories on an imagined set of digital continents as though they were the targets of a literal land grab. It's Google versus Facebook, Apple versus Adobe, Google versus Apple, Netflix versus Hulu, Yahoo versus the public opinion, Twitter versus Facebook, Microsoft versus Google, Facebook versus the start-ups that build on its platforms, every company in Silicon Valley versus the well-publicized shortage of engineering talent.

"The feuds that we see," O'Reilly observed in a conference "debrief" talk after the event had ended yesterday, "it makes people do stupid things as opposed to just trying to do things for the industry as a whole. There's still a lot of virgin territory."

Indeed, even Zuckerberg, in a talk on Tuesday afternoon, indicated that he's tired of hearing his company pitted against Google, scheming to kill Yahoo Mail through a new messaging product, or hellbent on squishing start-ups by acquiring them and bringing their founders into its own ranks. "We're not just trying to take value from other companies," Zuckerberg insisted, pointing to the colonialist-inspired map above him and saying that he thought it was inaccurate in the sense that no territory on it was left uncharted. He said that if the map were a true representation of Silicon Valley it'd be able to expand, "not only that it should expand but that we should enable it to expand."

Right.

Maybe the real reason for this discomfort isn't that this guarded competitiveness and calculated strategy of land grabs are bad things. Maybe it's the shedding of the naivete over the Silicon Valley knee-jerk reaction that we aren't supposed to be like that, like the rest of corporate America with its trade secrets and fierce rivals and back-room dealings. The whiteboards, the "hackathons," the pursuit of open standards (which, by the way, was a topic of conversation almost completely absent from this year's Web 2.0 Summit) for the greater good fall away. You are a business in search of profits. You have competitors. You want to beat them at their game.

And the funny thing is, we saw it in the Microsoft versus Apple PC battles that were so dramatically documented in the made-for-TV movie "The Pirates of Silicon Valley." We saw it in the browser wars, the search engine wars, and in every scramble for venture-capital dollars whenever there's a promising concept getting floated by a half-dozen entrepreneurs who've Googled the directions to Sand Hill Road. The recent film "The Social Network" might have dramatized many of Zuckerberg's early conflicts and obstacles in building Facebook, but does it mean that the real story was free of conflict and confrontation? Absolutely not.

The problem is that every time a shiny new craze rolls around in the digital-media industry, the rose-colored glasses flip right back onto our faces in reaction to the blaring, alluring sunlight in front of us. Everyone is suddenly working toward a single goal--the social Web, the connected Web, the real-time Web or whatever you want to call it in this case--and then people seem to expect it'll all turn into a community project rather than a grab bag of disparate, profit-focused companies that will ultimately want to get ahead of one another. Yes, collaboration does happen, and CEOs like Zuckerberg undoubtedly really do care about furthering a vision of a world tied together through the power of digital technology. But the reactions to a tech industry rife with antagonistic, nervous sentiments really shouldn't be so disconcerted. Shouldn't this be business as usual?

In Silicon Valley, companies are "supposed" to fail because the admirable concepts behind them were misguided, because they were too focused on changing the world without thinking of the need to infuse some profits into the mix--or, in the most optimistic sense, because they're too forward-thinking the industry isn't ready for them. No, sometimes they're snuffed out simply because another, more powerful company could whip up a bigger market share.

The other reason why this generated a particularly grating friction at the Web 2.0 Summit is because, with few exceptions, the executives onstage weren't talking about it directly. That's a byproduct of the public forum.

"The conversations when you have with these people (before they go onstage) are so much more candid," Battelle said in the "debrief" session as he riffed on his talks with speakers prior to their interviews onstage. "What Julius Genachowski can say privately and what he can say publicly are two very different things."

In saying that he may have been taking in some glee in the kind of access he gains from his powerful role as conference organizer, but Battelle's right on a broader scale, too. You're not going to get that kind of frankness when you bring a whole host of industry influentials into a hotel ballroom festooned with gilt and chandeliers, charge them a few grand for three days of peeks at the most talked-about CEOs in the business sitting up on a stage, microphones clipped onto the collars of their shirts, in front of an audience of fingers poised above glowing smartphone and tablet screens with Twitter clients open and ready.

"I'm a little saddened by how measured and media-savvy Eric Schmidt has become," O'Reilly said to the audience of conference attendees at the "debrief" event on Wednesday night. Indeed, the best two talks of the conference were the debates between venture capitalists Wilson and Doerr on Tuesday; and media executive Peter Chernin with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings yesterday, in which real dialogue was able to result rather than just the talking points coming from a tech executive who's had a few too many dealings with persnickety reporters and watchful government regulators.

You didn't see the real nature of industry competition unfolding on the Web 2.0 Summit stage, that's for sure. But the malaise may be overblown; Valley veterans should know better than anyone else that when a company grows big and becomes more focused on staying big than on innovating, it's screwed. The pace of development in the industry means another will step in faster than you can say "Microsoft." Investors who've pumped ungodly amounts of money into stupid ideas will feel the burn. There may be setbacks, but things really can keep moving forward.

And maybe that means the tech industry really is that sunny of a place to be. Just not in the way you might think.

 

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