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I was reading Fast Company’s list of "Most Innovative Companies" when it struck me: Curly was wrong.
You know-- leather-faced Curly from City Slickers. Specifically when he (played by all-time badass Jack Palance) was imparting his cowboy wisdom on hapless (and now similarly leather-faced Oscar host) Billy Crystal that the key to life was 'just one thing.’
All apologies, but wrong.
Life is about a bunch of things. Big things. Smaller things. But "things" plural. Fast Company’s top four most innovative companies—Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon—have this decidedly in common. In a seemingly ‘there’s an app for that world’ where ‘do one thing and do it better than anyone else’ is the mantra, they stand in contrast to a degree. Their utility is not one-dimensional or limited in any way. Their future seems wider, not deeper.
I won’t belabor the Applification of America. Apple is pervasive, thanks largely to ease of use and enormous utility. Apple works like you think it should and does a bunch of stuff that makes your life better or more enjoyable—even if you didn’t know it prior. What started with the iconic Mac has ballooned into something much, much more—a mix of hardware and software wrapped around an elegant experiential core. Even now, Apple seems nearer to its beginning than its end. Don’t delude yourself. We’ll all be driving Apple cars soon and asking Siri where the best place to beat the meter is.
Facebook began as a great way to keep in touch with friends new and old, to share some pictures, and blow off a little steam and time. Now it’s a way to share music, is on its way to becoming the prevalent Search venue, and will soon be all of our personal valet. It will know what we want—from turkey sandwich to Turkey vacation—before we do. Its key is that it’s so outwardly anthropomorphic. It doesn’t feel like software or layered databases. It feels like the corner pub, the high school reunion, or Aunt Gertrude’s parlor. Eight-hundred million people and counting stick with Facebook and all its foibles because we’re deeply engaged with it and have too much invested to unplug from it and move to Google+ or any of the other suitors for our social pursuits. In time, I have every reason to believe the Pinterests of the world will be bought or buried, reincarnated inside THE Facebook as it further solidifies its position as the place people digitally commune with one another for a long, long time.
Google, in contrast to Facebook’s warm and fuzzy human qualities, was the icily efficient box you typed search terms into. Remember that? Now it is email, calendars, maps, hardware, and the single best way to visualize a 3D rendering of the ulnar nerve. We all feed it more and use it more because it works—usually quickly and efficiently. Honestly, we’d all be reduced to nose-picking mouth-breathers if it went away one day. It is the undisputed champion of moving information into our heads. Think about it. Its utility and inroads into our lives (and soon our wallets) will grow unabated for the foreseeable future. Google it. You’ll see.
Amazon was a place to buy books. Now you can get Hugo Boss jeans (I’m told), organic pickles, or authentic MG (the iconic British convertible) cufflinks. Oh, and you could even get a Kindle, arguably doing more to promote reading than Harry Potter. With a significant share of hardware, software, and content sales, Amazon is not just transforming retail, but virtually all industries. It works. People like it. It’s simple. Why change?
Ultimately, I’ll give Curly this—they all began with ‘just one thing.’ From there, they consolidated their bases and built upon them vast, diverse enterprises that give us all more and more reason to use them. And use them. And use them some more. If it aint broke, don’t fix it, most of us say.
In a world increasingly thin-sliced, these four (with Foursquare hot on their heels) are becoming less specialized and more generally utilitarian. One and done competitors should take care. These all-in-one giants are not quite monopolies, but they’ve clearly got hotels on the green and yellow properties. They’re so hard to avoid because no one really wants to.
Don't tell Curly. He's packing.