Boring profits may fund the tech magic we love

Commentary: Some of the industry's most exciting technology likely can't pay for itself.


Google Maps

Image: Angela Lang/CNET

Early one recent morning I had to get downtown so that I could drop off a car for my wife, then head to the airport. To ensure I made it on time, I quickly checked Google Maps and off I went. It may be hard to remember, but prior to 2007, when Google Maps started offering traffic data, we used to have to listen to radio traffic updates to plan our daily commute, or just start the car and pray.

Google Maps is magical. It's also paid for by Google's gargantuan ads business, and probably helps to fuel that business. I'm OK with that. The magic is worth it.

In fact, I'm grateful for the profits at big companies that help to pay for lots of magical things that improve my life every day.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but have nothing to do with the magic of Amazon Go. Or Google Maps. Or GitHub. I just love all three.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Paying for developer love

Take Microsoft, as another example--the company has been printing billions in Office and Windows profits for years. While I don't have any particular insight into the financial statements of its other businesses, my hunch is that some of its developer-facing businesses aren't profitable. 

Fortunately, they don't need to be.

Microsoft has long offered some of the industry's best developer tooling like Visual Studio Code, and the cynic might suggest that it does so only as an on-ramp to its for-fee products (Windows, etc.). My answer: So what? Millions of developers use VsCode to build things that don't run on Microsoft technologies and likely never will. 

SEE: Developers: 9 free downloads that will enhance your programming career (TechRepublic)

Ditto GitHub, which Microsoft bought for $7.5 billion in 2018. Again, I don't know GitHub's financials, but it probably wouldn't be crazy to assume it's not profitable. Microsoft has thus far been careful not to privilege its own products (Azure, etc.) with GitHub, which means that the company may be subsidizing an incredible bonanza of developer love that may never pay back Microsoft a dime.

GitHub is magical. I don't really care how it's funded. I'm just grateful it is.

Shopping like a Jetson at Amazon Go stores

The same is true of Amazon Go. I have zero insider knowledge on the financials behind Amazon Go (its incubation and ongoing development), but such things aren't created for free. I've visited Amazon Go stores in New York and Seattle, and they're simply magical. Walk in, grab what you want, walk out. Magic.

As impressive as these smaller stores are, however, as reported by TechRepublic sister site CNET, Amazon just launched a full Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle. The idea that you can rummage through fresh produce and somehow get accurately charged for it when you walk out without ever scanning an item blows my mind.

One of Amazon's core leadership principles is frugality, and for decades the company has operated on tight margins as it has invested in growth. If AWS and a swelling ad business are helping to fund the magic behind Amazon Go, well, consider me grateful.

Indeed, across these businesses, I'm grateful for those profits that may cover the costs of building and running magical things. Products like Google Maps, GitHub, and Amazon Go make my life better, and arguably couldn't exist but for profits derived from other parts of these companies' businesses. Magic, it turns out, isn't free.

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