Under one view, the major tech companies lucked into some pieces of rapidly scalable software. They are phenomenal at producing and distributing such software, but otherwise they put on their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. They are not especially productive at marginal activities beyond their core competencies.
Under the second view, the major tech companies have developed new managerial technologies for hiring, handling, and motivating super-smart employees. That is the reason why the tech companies have become phenomenal at producing and distributing rapidly scalable software. But if tech companies turn their attention to other productive activities, they would do very very well. Alex for instance thinks that Apple ought to buy a university. Or you might expect that Google’s “scallion fried fish” dish would be especially tasty. After all, do not smarter people make for better cooks?
Yet a third view starts with the idea of labor scarcity, at least for the very talented folks. Good, ambitious, non-risk-averse managerial talent is super, super-scarce. The tech companies have a lot of it — good for them — and they pay for it by producing and distributing readily scalable software. In that setting, there is usually some slack within the tech company, so if the tech company takes on a new activity, it will excel at it, at least provided it does not try to move beyond the margin allowed by its collected, on-call talent. Yet if the tech company were to undertake a massive expansion into many non-tech fields, it would be just as talent-constrained as anyone else.
Which are these three views is correct? What if you had to pick three percentages that sum to one? How about 30-30-40?
Is there another contending view I am missing?
Addendum: A very important question is at what rate the existence of the tech companies boosts the incentive for individuals to become one of these very talented cogs in the machine of grand productivity. Training and talent-spotting matters! And just as tennis players keep on getting better, so can we expect the same from talented, high-cooperation workers, at least as long as the rewards are rising.
Is this actually the variable that determines how much good the big tech companies do for the world as a whole?