Monopoly Isn’t Just a Game Anymore

When you own the railroad you can control what goes on it. If you get greedy, there’s nobody to stop you. They haven’t a choice.

Amazon is doing a bit of its own railroading these days, being a bully to book publisher Hachette because of a contract dispute. Amazon is taking down pre-order buttons for Hachette titles on its site, raised prices on the publisher’s offerings, and even changed page design to feature other titles that compete with Hachette.  It’s not nice, but it’s certainly possible when you own the railroad.

The argument for and against Amazon has gone back and forth. Amazon is killing the independent bookstore. Amazon is making reading more popular and more affordable. I have tended to go for the positive view of Amazon, because I like to read, and I see how easy the company has made it to get more books. Now we’re into a new stage of the game, and it’s not a family-friendly round of Monopoly. This is the kind of game aimed at putting competitors out of business, pushing smaller companies around, and getting your way even if it means people will see who you really are. I’ve read about Jeff Bezos and what a not-nice guy he is. Visionary, but brutal. Now, with his moves against Hachette, I have a sense sense of the way he wants to play. He’s a monopolist. He’s part of a larger movement online, because the railroad baron attitude is coming back.

Have you heard it stated that there can be only one Facebook? Only one Twitter? Only one Dropbox? Only one Evernote?

A competitor to Evernote called Springpad has been fun to use because it permits me a little more creative control than Evernote. It’s shutting down next month due to lack of cash. (It was free.) Sure, there’s a problem with providing an app for free, and there’s a problem with profitless startups. By the way, Amazon also does not turn a profit. That’s right – lots of money comes in, and Jeff Bezos has enough personal wealth to buy the Washington Post. But, as the expression goes, it’s a great company but a lousy business.

Amazon has the muscle tell other companies what to do, just as Time-Warner and Comcast are trying to tell us how fast the Internet will be. These monopolists are willing to exercise power and in the process show us what they really stand for. Maybe that’s the upside.