INTERNATIONAL - Last fall, I uploaded some family videos to YouTube. Then I bought my mother an Amazon Fire TV so she could access them on her living room television.
Well, so much for being a good son. At the end of the year, as you may have heard, Google cut off access to YouTube from Amazon's popular line of connected TV devices. Now, when my mom presses the remote-control button for YouTube, Amazon invites her to select between two web browsers, instead of taking her to the popular video sharing app.
It’s all part of an ongoing standoff between the two tech giants that’s nearly gotten lost amid the bitcoin boom, the big chip flaw, SoftBank-Uber and Donald Trump’s tweets. But the fight is significant and even frightening in its implications for customers and the principles of internet openness. Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., two of the largest companies in the world, are slugging it out in pursuit of their own agendas, hurting customers in the process.
The battle goes back years. Back in 2011, Amazon developed its own version of the Android operating system for its Kindle Fire tablets, leaving apps like Google’s Play Store off the device and offering its own app store. More recently, Amazon has kept its Prime Video app—the service that offers up shows like the Man in the High Castle and the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—off Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast set-top-boxes.
Amazon cited “unacceptable business terms” for the decision to stay off both devices. The company was likely reluctant to fork over the usual 30 percent commission that Apple and Google charge when customers sign up for digital services on their mobile platforms. Amazon then stopped selling its rivals’ set-top box devices on its eponymous web store altogether.
Last year, Amazon made peace with Apple and resumed selling the Apple TV. But the cold war with Google heated up. Amazon hacked together a version of YouTube for the Echo Show, one of the first Alexa devices with a screen. But it didn’t show YouTube ads, recommend other videos or let users log into the site. Google said this app violated its terms of service and disabled Amazon’s workaround. In response, Amazon stopped selling some of Alphabet’s Nest devices on its online store.
In November, Amazon—still without authorization from Google—brought a more compliant version of YouTube back to the Echo Show; Google responded by not only pulling YouTube again but by saying it would remove the YouTube app from other Amazon devices, like my mom’s Fire TV. Google cited a “lack of reciprocity” and Amazon’s failure to sell Google products on its store. Amazon extended an olive branch, saying it would start selling Chromecast again, but this remains a pretty thin reed: The Chromecast pages on the Amazon store still say the units are “currently unavailable.”
Got all that? This is basically about two large, nearly invincible juggernauts that don’t want to do anything to help each other, even when it would make their customers’ lives easier. And as they take their battle to the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas to promote their rival voice-assistant platforms, the fight is only likely to get fiercer.
What’s especially disheartening is that both companies are abandoning their own principles to further their cause. Amazon values selection, comprehensiveness and “the customer” in its web store, but it’s now more accurately described as the “Everything but Google Store.”
Google is a champion of web openness, with a mission to make information “universally accessible.” But Amazon devices apparently don’t fall under the “universal” umbrella.
This is precisely what people worry about when they fret over the tech giants’ gathering power: that the companies will suspend their high-minded ideals in pursuit of an advantage in the marketplace. The Google-Amazon fight basically confirms their critics’ worst suspicions.
Speaking of Amazon, the first Alexa-enabled digital glasses will debut at CES. So you can be seen wearing clunky eyewear while muttering to yourself. Bitcoin miners in China are looking to move operations overseas, as the state cracks down. There are worries over miners’ energy consumption and exploitation of low prices for power.
Two Apple shareholders are urging the company to do more to reduce children’s usage of smartphones. They’re asking the gadget maker to study electronics’ impact on kids’ mental health, the Wall Street Journal reported.
CES starts this week in Las Vegas. The world’s largest gadget show matters this year.