Amazon's Power Play and Escalating Platform Wars

Author Adam Alter opens Irresistible, his latest book about addictive technology, with an interesting anecdote about how Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs marketed the iPad as a must-have handheld device for browsing the web, listening to music and downloading thousands of apps available on the App Store. And about how he refused to let his own children use them. It's "unsettling," Alter writes, adding "Why are the world's greatest public technocrats also its greatest private technophobes? Can you imagine the outcry if religious leaders refused to let their children practice religion?"

If there is one big takeaway from the book, it's that we have gotten accustomed to spending close to three hours a day staring at our smartphones, and a large part of this comes down to the fact that websites and apps (including games) are expressly designed to elicit compulsive and addictive behaviour by exploiting the sweet spot that's sandwiched between "too easy" and "too difficult". Anyone who has spent countless hours scrolling through Facebook and Instagram feeds, or binge-watching Netflix and YouTube videos would know what I am talking about. Internet addiction is real.

There is no doubt these apps and services are convenient and useful, but it's also true that users often struggle to use them in moderation. Our phones are full of 'irresistible' apps whose sole purpose is to make us return to them over and over again. Take Facebook's case for example (as it's perhaps the most relatable) - I post a status update, Facebook sends me a notification that someone has liked/commented on the post, I return to Facebook, feel happy about myself, make another post or comment, I get another notification from Facebook, I return again. The loop continues.

Netflix, likewise, automatically moves to the next episode in a series, YouTube auto-plays the next video after you are done watching one, and these are just some of the few examples we encounter in our daily lives. And as we continue to use their services, companies build exhaustive user profiles (based on our likes and dislikes) to predict our next move so that we are effectively hooked to them. Does this mean we, as individuals, lack self-control? Or is it the companies who should be blamed for breaking down our self-control by engineering addictive experiences?

There is no straightforward answer, but a possible solution to avert this hijacking of our time is by setting screen time limits. Or by installing lesser apps on our phones. Or by burying time sucking apps like Facebook, Twitter etc. in folders not immediately accessible from our home screens. Or by disabling notifications (which are primarily the triggers) altogether. Whatever be our mechanism to cope up with internet addiction, the escalating platform wars between Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon means they are always going to maintain some sort of an upper hand, finding newer and newer ways to ensnare us into their ecosystems.

Facebook and Google's parent Alphabet have emerged the big tech octopuses, extending their tentacles to markets that transcend their original mission (Facebook is no longer just a social network, Google is no longer about search) and now Amazon has followed suit by branching big time into grocery business. Apple wants our iPhones to be the one-stop shop to access medical data. Microsoft wants to be the place for professional networking. Google is investing heavily into hardware (so is Microsoft for that matter) and original video (just like Apple) and Facebook pretty much owns the social media space with its strategic acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram at the expense of Twitter and Snapchat.

Where does that leave other players? At a time when tech acquisition spree is at an all time high, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the big five start gobbling up companies across different verticals left, right and centre. All signs are that it's already underway, potentially raising concerns about competition and monopolisation. There is always a choice (like preferring Walmart or Google Shopping Express over Amazon, or any of the new emerging players in the market), but the big million dollar question is are we ready to wean ourselves off them and trade the convenience and personalisation offered by these companies for another?