The issue you hold in your hands was supposed to have a Hollywood icon on the cover. We had a photo shoot set up, an interview arranged. It was all carefully mapped out.
And then Steve Jobs announced he was stepping down as CEO of Apple. That news, combined with Google's surprise acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Amazon's pending launch of an iPad-like tablet device, and Facebook's announcements at the f8 conference, prompted us to rethink our plans. There are big doings in the world of tech—bigger, even, than most tech watchers seem to acknowledge.
The Big Four—Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—are increasingly crossing into one another's spheres. They are all creating mobile devices (even Facebook has tested the waters via a modest partnership with HTC). They are all trying to exploit the social graph (Apple via a Twitter integration). They are all eyeing the ad market, and of course they all want to sell stuff. Their competition will only get more heated in 2012, as writer Farhad Manjoo explains in "The Great Tech War of 2012".
You don't have to care about tech to be affected by this battle. These four companies are now setting the agenda for wide swaths of the economy, from entertainment to advertising, communications to finance. They are pushing change across myriad industries, as CEOs who never thought of themselves as competing with Silicon Valley now find themselves forced to react to the latest initiatives out of Cupertino or Palo Alto or Mountain View, forced to adjust not just marketing plans but distribution platforms, payments systems—and, perhaps most important, their own structural ability to redefine their businesses.
This magazine's cover proclaims that one of the Big Four will "win" the tech war. This is a bit of sleight of hand. In fact, all four of them are winners. (Which is why we have four versions for this issue's cover.) The competition among them is provoking one another to be ever more aggressive, more ambitious, and more innovative. That, in turn, is putting more distance between them and everybody else.
This is not the point of the news you read about the Big Four in newspapers and blogs. Each is pursuing so many new things; it's easy to get lost in the swirl of announcements and initiatives. That's why we felt it was time to take a step back—to integrate together the bigger picture strategies and the impacts that these increasingly important, powerful, and successful combatants are having. It's hard to find a corner of America where one or more of these companies isn't touching consumers, changing culture, and transforming commerce. They are the defining businesses of the 21st century.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.