The individual stories of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have been documented at length by multiple authors. However, in his book, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, Scott Galloway goes beyond a simple biographical review of their stories and examines how these four companies have been able to aggregate substantial economic power and political influence in only a few decades. Galloway acknowledges that these companies have “generated over $2.3 trillion in economic wealth, created hundreds of thousands of jobs, and produced an array of products and services that are entwined into the daily lives of billions of people” around the globe. Behind that success, however, lies a history of market domination based on aggressive lobbying and cutthroat business practices that the customers of “The Four” rarely get to see.
The Four Horsemen
Are these four companies making the world a better place, or are they the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Galloway argues that they are both. The same company that is responsible for putting a super-computer in your pocket “withholds information about a domestic act of terrorism from federal investigators, with the support of a fan following that views the firm similar to a religion.” The social media company that connects generations of families and friends across the globe “analyzes thousands of images of your children, activates your phone as a listening device and sells this information to Fortune 500 companies.”
The first half of this fascinating and unnerving book examines each horseman in detail, mapping their respective ownership, accelerated growth curves (it took Facebook less than a decade to reach 1 billion customers) and business strategies that have led them to nearly unassailable market domination. The consequences of that domination are examined in detail. How, for example, do you compete with Facebook when the company has deep-enough pockets to buy any potential competitor at prices that smaller companies have no hope of matching (such as the $20 billion that Facebook paid for the 5-year-old, 50-employee instant-messaging company WhatsApp)?
After you have conquered the world, where do you go next? Galloway examines the battles unfolding as each horseman seeks to grasp market share from the others. Google and Apple are battling over the dominant operating system for smartphones. Apple (Siri) and Amazon (Alexa) are fighting for your attention as voice-activated assistants, with Google chasing close behind. Amazon, Google’s largest customer for ads, is now threatening Google in search traffic (“55 percent of people searching for a product start on Amazon vs. 28 percent on search engines such as Google”).
The Dark Side of Competitive Advantage
How do you control an advertising platform that controls (in some markets) “a 90 percent share of the most lucrative sector in media, yet avoids anticompetitive regulation through aggressive litigation and lobbyists”? In the second half of the book, Galloway examines how the horsemen leverage their unprecedented competitive advantage by exploiting our willingness to “invite them into the most intimate areas of our lives.” Beneath the mythology there is clear evidence, the author argues, of manipulation of both governments and competitors to mine our personal data and steal intellectual property.
The greatest attribute of The Four is the author’s commitment to looking beyond the PR statements and asking fundamental questions. How did these companies “infiltrate our lives so completely?” And “Why does the Stock Market forgive them for sins that would destroy other firms?” Looking to the future, Galloway questions the broader impact for such a large concentration of wealth among so few companies. Comparing Intel ($165 billion market capitalization and employing 107,000 people) with Facebook ($448 billion market capitalization but employing only 17,000 people), we are left with the frightening prospect that the continued unbridled growth of The Four may not be as good for the global economy as we have been led to believe. What is clear is that after reading this book, you’ll never look at these four companies the same way again.