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Inside Tech’s Civil War and What It Means

Apple’s decision to go to war with Facebook and Google dominated headlines this week. For those who were off the grid, Apple shut down some iOS apps used by employees at those companies to run their businesses. Its reason: TechCrunch revealed the companies were abusing the program by extending it to user research apps. Apple restored the access within two days, presumably because Facebook and Google got in line.

For that brief period, Facebook employees couldn’t test beta versions of Messenger or figure out when the next Facebook-sponsored shuttle from Menlo Park to San Francisco was leaving. Googlers were in a similar boat.

But the episode signifies something much larger. The recent era of statesmanship in big tech is over.

While the history of tech is full of epic brawls (Apple/Microsoft, Microsoft/Netscape), for the last decade, the big tech giants largely stayed in their own lanes. They were each gatekeepers to separate activities: shopping, search, social, phones.

They encroached on each other’s turf, with Google’s launch of Android in 2007 as a big volley against its one-time partner Apple. But beyond that, only in minor ways. For the last five years, it looked like they were all getting along. And their executives were usually civil in public and private.

Fast forward to today, when Apple CEO Tim Cook takes every chance he gets to take a jab at Facebook on privacy. Amazon executives aren’t pulling any punches about rivals in enterprise either, particularly Oracle. And I’ve noticed a major pickup in sniping by rival tech CEOs about each other behind the scenes. I suspect some of that will spill over into the public soon.

The reasons are clear. Everybody is a little anxious. Businesses are maturing. Politicians are coming, and the next big thing in consumer (augmented reality? self-driving cars?) is up for grabs.

Apple spent a lot of time this week trying to convince investors to think of it as a services and a hardware business because, well, the hardware business is slumping. Facebook, which rules internet services along with Google, is very bullish about AR. But hardware companies like Apple stand in its way. The companies are going some.

Amazon, Facebook and Apple all want to be media companies—at least until they come to their senses! Google is relatively quiet publicly but working furiously to take down any piece of Microsoft and Amazon’s cloud businesses. And Google CEO Sundar Pichai is thinking a lot about Amazon and its growth in advertising.

Ironically, for students of history, Microsoft is largely on the sidelines watching the wars play out. At least that’s what CEO Satya Nadella would like you to think, as he remarked: “Sometimes I find it a little strange for tech companies to complain about each other. It might be entertaining. We all have an axe to grind in this...It’s us talking amongst ourselves.” Still the company isn't shying away from moves that undermine its rivals by pushing for legislation around facial recognition.

Where does it all go? Well, eventually, probably court. If there’s one thing an antitrust prosecutor likes, it’s a chatty competitor ready to spill dirt about his enemies. That should give CEOs pause to pick their battles carefully.

Beyond that, these battles are important to watch because they tell you what the leadership of a company is actually focused on, as opposed to what executives say they are focused on.

Yes, Cook cares deeply about privacy. But it’s no accident that Apple is poking the privacy issue and getting stricter about policing app developers like Facebook just as it tries to turbocharge its own services.

Jessica Lessin founded The Information in 2013 after reporting on Silicon Valley for eight years for the Wall Street Journal. She writes a weekly column about all things tech, media and the wild ride both industries are in for. She can be found on Twitter at @jessicalessin.