Google and Facebook: voracious giants with the power to create the future

The internet powerhouses are using their billions to challenge in sectors far removed from their original business models

The web’s biggest consumer companies make the bulk of their incomes, and have built up vast assets, from targeted advertising. It accounts for around 90% of Facebook’s revenue and much the same for Google. By supporting a vast range of services that variously offer search, chat, email, file storage, video and photo-sharing, they can track every nuance of online activity, preference and behaviour, targeting and adapting advertising and services.

Yet with such a simple and lucrative core business, Facebook and Google are investing significant sums in new, exploratory and seemingly unrelated technologies. Facebook astonished the industry with its $2bn acquisition of Oculus Rift, a promising but niche and untested virtual reality headset. Google X, the company’s notionally secretive experimental wing, has bought 14 specialist startups since March 2013, covering robotics, machine learning and gesture recognition, but has also been developing Google’s self-driving car project, the augmented reality Google Glass headset and Project Loon, which is developing ways of using a network of balloons in the stratosphere to bring internet connectivity to developing regions. Why?

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