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The Digital World Needs a Switzerland

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The digital world is starting to resemble Europe of the 19th century. The major players of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, and Apple are repeatedly switching from allies to adversaries and back. Microsoft and Yahoo resemble the crumbling (or crumbled) dynasties of the previous century still trying to control the continent.

Battles are boiling up between two companies, pulling in others, and creating a tangled mess.

I would love to see what a Venn diagram of all the patent battles involving these companies looks like.

Tech Company Patent Battles

It now appears that each of these companies is attempting to strengthen its borders and create walled gardens in which to keep users and exclude the other major players.

Instagram is no longer on Twitter.

Twitter is no longer allowing tweets to be displayed in LinkedIn.

Facebook decided that everyone needs a Facebook email on their profile instead of the personal email used to create the account in the first place.

It is the political equivalent of cutting off trade and travel between countries.

Tech Company Walled Gardens

And just like the political equivalent, these actions really only serve to hurt the citizen-users of these nation-state/companies and the merchants attempting to do business in their ecosystems.

Citizen-users are forced to completely segregate their possessions (data) between these companies, or alternatively choose to deal with just one.

Merchants (apps, plug-ins, etc…) face a similar choice. They can do business with each company individually without leveraging their product across borders, or they can risk being caught “smuggling” and cut off by the powers that be.


But why shouldn’t the companies create their walled gardens? It makes sense – especially if you work for or are a major investor for one. Each company is just trying to maximize profit by increasing its user base and user engagement.

When users spend time in other applications, that is time lost, right? There are only so many people in the world and so many hours in the day – isn’t this a zero sum game?

This is the dangerous fallacy of isolationism. It is not a zero sum game. It is about maximizing the value for your user and growing the pie. The more value a company creates for its users, the more valuable the company is to its users and customer retention goes up!

Customers are becoming much more aware of what value can be added by each company or application and want to choose the combination that works best for them.

We truly are entering a world of best of breed with cloud computing, APIs, and applications that aggregate and distribute data for the customer. Just like the connectedness of the modern world makes political isolationism difficult, it will make tech isolationism self defeating.

Do tech companies really want to be like North Korea?

The Kim-Jong Il of Tech Companies

How can this work? We can’t expect all of these players to get along all of the time. There also are always going to be instances in which there is too much overlap in the interests of at least two companies, requiring head-to-head competition. In addition, these are for-profit companies that need something in it for them in every transaction.

It boils down to two things: quid pro quo and Switzerland.

Quid Pro Quo

Let’s start with quid pro quo (“this for that” in Latin). Almost every business transaction is a variance of this agreement to exchange two items of perceived equal value. When one side of the transaction perceives that they are on the receiving end of an unequal exchange you end up with some of the disagreements discussed in the beginning of this piece.

In the case of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, they often feel that someone else is gaining value from the networks they have spent enormous resources to build that exceeds the value provided in return.

This situation often results when an application allows users to see specific content from a network while avoiding visiting the actual network. Leaving the argument of why users prefer these applications (UX, ability to leverage multiple networks, etc…), one can see how this minimizes the networks ability to engage users with advertising or other revenue generating features.

GigaOM did a nice job covering this issue a while back in the post “Why links matter: Linking is the lifeblood of the web”. Those who want to use the networks built by these companies are going to need to figure out how to give credit or compensate accordingly.

Users need Switzerland

The Swiss

The second key element to maintaining tech world peace is Switzerland – or at least a digital version.  We need some parties that are neutral and agnostic.

Now I’m sure some European History or Political Science major will want to argue whether or not Switzerland has ever truly been neutral, but let’s go with the popular opinion of Switzerland where it is neutral and does not take sides but tries to conduct business fairly across all parties.

Users need platforms that will allow them to conduct their trade across these walled garden kingdoms without incurring the wrath of the rulers.  Without this there is a very good chance that sooner or later you will see the users abandoning the kingdoms and moving to new ones that do not have such strict borders.

Sync contacts to any platform

We at FullContact are striving to be that digital Switzerland for users’ contacts.  We believe that users should be able to access their contacts on any platform and know that their contacts are complete, accurate, and up-to-date.

There need to be other Switzerlands that enable trade between the walled gardens like Evernote, IFTTT, and the number of business apps that integrate with multiple sources.  Combine these neutral parties and fair treaties (maybe users would be willing to pay for premium accounts to share content across platforms!) and we might actually avoid spinning into a digital world war.

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