LinkedIn, the business-oriented social-networking company that Microsoft acquired, this week, for 26.2 billion, was founded on two premises. The first was that, even in the winner-take-all world of Internet businesses, there would still be room for a niche company (meaning, in this case, only four hundred million registered users, and a hundred million users per month). The second was that what it means to work in a business is now profoundly different from what it was in the Organization Man era. White-collar employees are highly unlikely to spend a lifetime with a single employer, and more and more are not employees at all in the traditional sense. They self-manage their careers, in part by maintaining online personal networks, rather than have them managed by a corporate human-relations department.
Microsoft's announcement, on Monday, that it would purchase LinkedIn--its biggest acquisition ever, at more than twenty-six billion dollars--brought to mind an earlier takeover attempt, almost a decade ago. Back in the mid-aughts, Microsoft's C.E.O. at the time, Steve Ballmer, flew to Palo Alto to try to convince Mark Zuckerberg, the young C.E.O. of Facebook, to let Microsoft buy his company. During Facebook's first couple of years, bigger companies had dismissed it, and social networking in general, as a fad for college kids; Zuckerberg had even admitted that he didn't care how Facebook would eventually make money. But Ballmer, who wanted to catch up to Google in the online-advertising business, was beginning to see Facebook's power. People were signing up for accounts in extraordinary numbers.
"Don't be evil," Google's two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, famously proclaimed in the manifesto they published just before their company went public, in 2004. Avoiding evil suggested a pretty low bar, but the vow itself--along with the founders' boast that "our business practices are beyond reproach"--was an invitation to find contrary examples. There have been plenty of nominations, including the announcement, in 2012, that Google would track its customers' Gmail missives, Web searches, and YouTube usage, which had the effect of helping advertisers target potential customers. Google still scans e-mail and tracks Web searches. This is, in fact, its business model--your Gmail account and search cost no money; you pay for it by letting people advertise to you based on keywords used in searches and e-mails.
Sundar Pichai made a bold statement in a letter to shareholders. After describing the evolution of computers since the nineties, from hulking desktop machines to petite portable devices, he wrote, "Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the'device' to fade away." His point was that, because computing technology is becoming smaller and more powerful, computers can be built in all kinds of forms. Building devices is no longer hard. The difficult part--and the part that will distinguish products from one another--is the experience that computers facilitate.
On the evening of March 31st, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla's sinuous Model 3, the company's first "affordable" electric-car model. After touting the sedan's punchy acceleration, two-hundred-and-fifteen-mile battery range, and sweeping, seamless glass roof, he mentioned its base price of thirty-five thousand dollars and told the audience that prospective buyers had already reserved more than a hundred and fifteen thousand of the vehicles, to rapturous applause and shouts of "You did it!" Not one to miss a marketing trick, Musk capped the night on Twitter, with a cryptic thank-you message that promised more: "Thanks for tuning in to the Model 3 unveil Part 1! Part 2 is super next level, but that's for later . . . Within hours, the tech community was awash in speculation about what more Tesla could have in store for the Model 3. Some wondered, specifically, whether it would be the world's first mass-market, fully autonomous self-driving car. Spurred forward by Google and other Silicon Valley companies, the auto industry has been tinkering with autonomous vehicles for years.