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A Trillion is Too Much

Entry 1928, on 2018-08-08 at 21:29:08 (Rating 3, News)

I have seen a few recent comments on Apple's latest achievement of becoming the world's first trillion dollar company (based on stock value, or something more technical than that, maybe). Some people are impressed, but are not putting too much weight on it, because as we all know, when it comes to share value it's easy come, easy go. Others are saying this is bad news, and that is the more interesting idea, I think.

Before I start I should declare a "conflict of interest" here, because I am an Apple "fan-boy", at least to the extent that all my computer products are made by Apple (and I'm talking dozens of them), I do support for Apple hardware, and I program using an Apple-based platform.

So you would think I would be celebrating that Apple has been so successful. Well maybe a bit. I think it's good that Apple has reached this milestone before other companies I have less admiration for - like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) - but I still object to corporations having so much wealth and influence on principle.

So yes, despite being a strong Apple advocate I still don't like the fact that they have more value that almost every entire country in the world apart from the top 16 (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Spain, UK, and US).

And almost as soon as Apple acquired all this money and power (because the two are always related) they demonstrate why they shouldn't have it by banning Alex Jones' Infowars material from their platforms, specifically his podcast feeds. Of course, it's not just Apple who are stifling free expression, because Facebook and YouTube are also blocking this material.

Now, I know what you're thinking: first, Alex Jones is a crazy conspiracy theorist who is completely insane and wrong about everything; and second, these private companies have the right to support or reject anyone they want to.

But are either of these points really true? Sure, Jones does promote some pretty wacky conspiracies which I think are almost certainly false, and his personality borders on maniacal, but there is also a lot of material on his site which isn't anything to do with crazy conspiracies. Also, sometimes conspiracies really do exist, so we shouldn't automatically write them off every time. And even if we did, isn't he entitled to an opinion even if most of the evidence seems to show he's wrong?

And regarding the rights of corporations to make their own decisions on who they stop from using their services. In a purely libertarian, free market model this might be true. But we all know how dangerous that model is, so there are restrictions on what companies can and can't do. And manipulating the political system (and a case could be made that this is an example of that) is something they should be avoiding. The Americans don't like the possibility that Russia influenced their politics. Why is it any better that large corporations could do the same?

I'm going to do a blog post on alternative news sources in the near future, so I won't say too much about the importance of sites like InfoWars here. But what other problems are there with corporations getting too big?

Well they undoubtedly stifle innovation, both directly and incidentally through their mere existence. For example, surely there has been a place for someone to create a really good word processor for decades now. Why hasn't it happened? Because that ugly, confusing, unreliable, slow piece of junk called Microsoft Word is the standard which everyone uses (well, almost everyone, because I don't use it). Why has it become the standard? Because Microsoft has got too big and has too much power, especially in large organisations.

How much better would the world be if all word processing documents had to save their files in an open standard form which everyone could use? Then we could use whatever word processor we wanted and still exchange files with everyone else. Even people who like Word (do they really exist?) would probably admit that having viable alternatives, especially for specialised purposes like writing academic papers or technical documentation, would be a good thing.

And I know that the Word format (especially the newer XML based format) isn't totally opaque and that most programs can convert to and from it, but that process is rarely perfect, which makes using Word the only practical solution for many.

So, are big companies the best place for innovation to be nurtured? It doesn't seem that way, because many new products are initially developed by small companies which are acquired by bigger ones to use in their systems. Apple's Siri is a good example. Some would say that progress on that has stalled since Apple bought it.

What other disadvantages are there of big corporations? There is the phenomenon of being "too big to fail". This has been a prominent issue with financial institutions in the past where their failure would have been so detrimental to economies as a whole that government bail-outs were the only option. Apparently the CEOs of these big companies are enthusiastic about free markets and minimum government intervention until events like the Global Financial Crisis happen, then welfare suddenly becomes quite attractive!

If we had many small companies doing this work instead of a few big ones it would be possible to let the worst examples fail and have others take their place. After a while the crazy financial practices that lead to the GFC would be eliminated.

What about the claim that these big corporations employ a lot of people? Well yes, that is true, but how many people do they put out of work? As big companies force out small ones and move production to cheaper facilities overseas I suspect the net change in employment is negative. I haven't found any reliable stats supporting this, but logically it makes sense.

Finally, do big corporations do things that smaller companies couldn't do? I don't think so, although this is also difficult to evaluate using real facts. You might make a case to say that a huge corporation like Apple has the abilities all in one place to create a whole ecosystem of products and services that work well together, and that several smaller companies couldn't quite do it as well.

For example, I often make voice recordings on my Apple Watch which syncs to my Mac laptop, iPad, and iPhone, through iCloud. All of these are Apple services and they work well together. It could be that separate companies might not be able to get it all working together quite so well.

But even here, if standards existed which any company could follow it would make interconnectivity possible, and it might work even better than what Apple can do by itself because each company would be concentrating on making their part of the system work as well as possible instead of being part of a bigger entity which might not emphasise one small but important component enough.

So, I think on balance we would be better off if the size of companies could be limited. Of course, how that could be done fairly and practically is the big question. But I figure the first step is to admit the idea is good in principle. Because a trillion really is too much.


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