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A few months ago, I wrote an article predicting that Silicon Valley titans like Google, Meta and Adobe are likely to collapse within 10 to 20 years. Commenters on social media tended to agree with my assessment of Meta/Facebook, but expressed far more scepticism about the possible collapse of Google or Adobe.
It’s the former one in particular that appears to be “too big to fall”, as the latter is already feeling the pinch of alternative solutions in the graphics design sphere (like Canva or much, much cheaper Affinity Suite, already taking on Adobe’s core apps: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign).
After all, Google accounts for at least 85 per cent of global search market (though some estimates place it as high as 92 per cent). It also owns 70 per cent of the smartphone OS market, thanks to Android’s popularity, particularly in less developed countries.
How could such a giant — a monopolist in many ways — be challenged by anybody?
Well, the lessons are found in history, including Google’s own rise to power.
We like to delude ourselves into thinking that we can predict the future; that there are some observable patterns and laws that we can follow to determine who or what is going to be popular in the years to come, or will determine how our lives will look like in decades.
In reality, even in this day and age of access to the internet and more information that we could ever imagine, we are still really bad at this.
Contrary to popular belief, innovation does not happen in a linear way — it often occurs in unpredictable leaps, almost overnight, catching the incumbent leaders by surprise.
Google itself wasn’t the first search engine. It was created at a time when Yahoo was one of the leaders of the dot-com revolution and its value peaked at over US$100 billion when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still students tinkering with tech in a garage.
But technology behind Google was, at the time, more accurate and versatile, and far more adaptable for global use. Yahoo was a US-centric news portal with the search function merely attached to it and similar clones (as it often happens in tech) were popping up all over the world, in each respective, national market.
Google changed that focusing on search function itself, rather than content, and building an underlying algorithm that would scour the web and rank websites in terms of relevance for specific search queries, regardless of where you were located.
It then monetised its service with advertising placed next to search results, allowing businesses to pay their way into them. This simple model is still the bedrock of the company’s existence, nearly 25 years later.
Despite the enormity of the market, counted in tens of billions of dollars, no other company has managed to put a dent into Google’s dominance.
But this may soon change.
ChatGPT is another AI-powered solution released by OpenAI, a research lab funded by the likes of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel or Microsoft. It was behind the eyebrow-raising DALL·E 2 AI image generator, which made waves earlier in 2022 with its ability to generate complex, often very realistic, images from simple queries entered by the user.
ChatGPT, meanwhile, provides accurate, natural sounding answers to questions — in fact, almost any question you can imagine (and it’s bound to only get better). The system is so convincing, that it can actually generate entire articles based on a simple user input, extracting relevant information from multitude of sources it was fed with.
Here’s what it told me about sources of Singapore’s wealth in just a few seconds:
From this rather general response, you can follow up with questions about specific points and get a more refined picture.
Assuming it is accurate (what isn’t always the case at the moment) there’s a clear advantage of having such a chat assistant over doing a Google search, which is why Alphabet’s executives are alarmed by the sophistication of the tool.
To extract and organise specific information about a particular topic, you would typically have to go through a number of websites listed in Google’s results yourself and then read and locate the specific information you need.
Here, you just get a complete reply, focused on the information you requested.
But the chat can also generate creative suggestions, like a good friend would, without you having to browse dozens of websites yourself. Like in this example:
At its founding, Google provided more accurate search results, listing pages/websites most relevant to your question. ChatGPT takes it further by providing you a direct reply, with the information you seek, and does it in an often eerily human-like way.
But there’s another trick up its sleeve — it can also generate creative content by itself.
How about a poem about Singapore?
Yes, it may require a bit of polishing, but it’s not bad for a service that is still, effectively, in a beta stage.
In other words, ChatGPT is not only a threat to Google but to many content creators, writers, news outlets and so on.
Admittedly, the system has to be fed some information, before it can produce something. After all, it only knows as much as it’s taught.
But this may be reduced to just a few streams of data, facts and figures, with the AI generating news broadcasts (be it in text or voice, or maybe even full videos one day), or perhaps even opinion pieces from different angles (learning the differences in arguments made by political left or right), within minutes or seconds — something that would take humans inordinately more time.
And, most likely, at a fraction of the cost too.
This is really a double whammy for Google, which derives its revenue from both search and content (having its banners placed by publishers around their articles).
Quite quickly, we may abandon the dated search results pages listing an endless stream of links to websites (often skewed by shady SEO practices, still elevating spammy or potentially malicious links to high positions) and simply use one solution that provides the exact answer we’re looking for in a vast majority of our information-seeking activity.
Once the system gets refined and can process information in different languages, the collapse of Google as the leading search engine could be very swift.
And the fact that it took ChatGPT just five days to reach a million users only reinforces this observation:
Just Bing it
And it’s not like OpenAI wants to keep the chat free either, as the costs of running it are, as described by OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman, “eye-watering”.
There’s already a plan underway to monetise the solution, with revenues expected to reach US$1 billion in 2024 — quite a jump from zero today.
Perhaps the chat itself will incorporate some advertising, or it simply becomes a paid solution (maybe with tiers depending on users’ needs). But the most interesting twist to this story is the involvement of Google’s long-time unsuccessful rival: Microsoft.
Back in 2019, the giant from Redmond poured in US$1 billion into OpenAI, what may turn out to be one of the best investments in tech ever.
After years of hopelessly pursuing Google with its own search engine, Bing, Microsoft has now announced it will incorporate some features of ChatGPT into it, starting this March, with further integration expected with time.
This may just be the technological leap it needed to finally end Google’s dominance.
And it’s just one of many avenues the company can follow to utilise the new tech, given its own near-monopoly in operating systems for personal computers.
Since OpenAI is planning to make money off the technology, Bing — or Windows — may soon be the main way for millions of people to access it for free (and conveniently, too).
It seems like Google was really caught on the back foot and it’s not clear that even its billions of dollars can allow it to develop a competing solution in time. After all, remember what happened to Nokia?
It had the dominance in the mobile phone market, it had the money, it even launched smartphones — and yet, it was defeated in a few short years and had to leave the industry entirely.
Will it happen to Google too? For the first time ever, we can really say that it just might.
Featured Image Credit: Vikas Kulhari via Medium